I finally figured out why I resist curriculum so much. I went to college for a master’s in education eight years ago. I left that program with a head full of ideas for the right way to educate children in the 21st century. I built a child care program around all the lovely ideals I’d learned at school. But I’ve always had to contend with the EEC (Early Education and Care), the state department that oversees child care.
It was still called OCCS (Office for Child Care Services) back when I started, back when the focus was still on “Child Care” and not “Early Education.” When the department changed names I was sad, but not surprised, to discover that they wanted measurable outcomes for toddlers and preschoolers.
At this young age getting along with others, controlling their bodies and emotions, and feeling loved is what little ones need. I teach social skills (constantly, all day, every day, 100 times over and over again…). I’m not in the business to create preschoolers who can write their letters and do addition. Besides, if I teach them how to hold the pencil wrong, their kindergarten teacher is going to have to work twice as hard to undo the bad habits.
To me, art is giving them a brush and paper. Writing is giving them a marker or piece of chalk and watching them scribble while we talk about what words they’re writing. Music is putting a song on the radio and dancing (yes I do have instruments but they are confined to the front porch, a.k.a. the noisy room).
Within the course of the normal child care day, I do all the arts and curriculum required. I do what’s age-appropriate for each child. We sing, we listen to music, we dance, we read, we count, we write, we draw, we play pretend, we play outside. We wash our hands and sit down to eat. We change our clothes and potty when we need to. I don’t need a lot of flashy stuff on the walls to prove that they’re learning.
Here’s why I don’t like to do big projects, especially the way the EEC describes them, which is to have every child do the same project. Mind you, my ages range from infant to kindergartener (and after-schoolers, but they’re way too smart to enter the room when a project is going on).
You spend a lot of time researching the idea, making it age-appropriate, preparing the materials, cutting shapes, and gathering the supplies. You set it up and the kids come to the table. One or two are really excited and want to do it, but they want to get it exactly right and maybe make a mistake and start to cry. One is eating the paint and spreading it in her hair. Another is not interested and he’s off playing with toys. The toddlers are touching everyone else’s projects and making them mad. The infant might sleep through the whole thing, or she might wake up and puke all over it.
Still, I’d been having a hard time putting my finger on why I was so against curriculum – was I just being contrary? Lazy? Was I really looking out for the best interests of children by denying them some part of learning? Then I spent two evenings this week at a planning meeting for the new high school our town is building.
The presenter talked about how the 20th century was the Century of the Teacher, but the 21st will be the Century of the Learner. How teachers should guide and coach rather than dominate. The buzzwords were collaborative, integrated, relevant, personalized, real-world, critical thinking, problem-solving.
Isn’t that what I do all day? Didn’t I just get the satisfaction yesterday of watching my three- and four-year-old work out how they were going to share the same toy, make a plan, and then play together happily? Problem-solving, critical thinking, collaborative.
As the presenter talked about how learning is social, and based on relationships and small working groups, I thought he was describing my child care. My mind went back to one of the biggest themes of my master’s work, that emotion solidifies learning. When you are emotionally engaged in something, you learn and remember it.
The other day at naptime the kids wouldn’t come to their beds because they were really into a game they were playing. I wasn’t even really annoyed or mean to them, but I had to ask them three times to come (and still they wouldn’t). I finally sighed and walked away to clean the lunch table. My two-year-old walked up to me and said, “Amy. I’m sorry we took so long to finish playing.” Two-year-old! This is true learning.
Could it be that children at this young age learn so much not only because they are naturally sponges, but because we (in child care) are using all the right techniques? We know so much about education these days but putting it to real use is near impossible when you’re dealing with established bureaucracy (test, baby, test!).
When a child grows emotionally I can’t produce a pretty piece of art and check it off on the curriculum form, but that is truly the most critical part of her development right now.
Family child care is the last frontier of real learning, and we have to hold out even as the boards and committees and “experts” try to screw it up on us. On vacation last week I met a woman who taught juvenile offenders at Rikers Island prison in New York. I commented that we need to understand that kids know so much more than we give them credit for. She looked me in the eye and said, “Until people start getting that right, there is no hope that anything will ever change.”
I know that it’s useless to fight the tide, and more and more curriculum and assessment requirements are coming our way. I just can’t stand to sit by and watch the real, true learning of early childhood get swept away by numbers, statistics, and outcomes. So I’ll just do the minimum required and keep on teaching the way that I believe – that in fact I know – is the right way.