Nothing is as natural as learning. Simply put, to be alive is to be learning. In the earliest years of a child’s life, the type of learning they experience shapes their brain development. During this time, the brain undergoes a rapid period of growth. “By the time a child is 3, the brain is 80 percent developed; at 5, 90 percent,” according to FirstThingsFirst.org. These early years represent the optimum time for children to build the neurological connections they need to be healthy, capable and successful adults.
A pioneer in the field of early childhood education, Jean Piaget believed that “children definitively have their own thought processes and their own distinct order and special logic. Children are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. Instead, they are active builders of knowledge – little scientists who construct their own theories of the world,” according to Scholastic.com. Piaget was purporting children are born ready to learn. The brain’s development is influenced by many factors, including relationships, experiences, and environment. As such, nurturing care for the mind is critical.
Studies show “children learn best in a safe environment with plenty of opportunities to play and explore,” the CDC reports. In education, this is often referred to as a constructivist environment, rich with play-based learning and social interactions, where children’s surroundings offer autonomy, provocation and problem-solving. Activity rises from children’s intrinsic motivation and social interest rather from teachers’ lesson plans.
When children are given the freedom to make choices and stimulated to think for themselves, “either new neural pathways are formed or existing ones are strengthened,” according to RaiseSmartKids.com. Challenging experiences, offered in an environment that is loving and provides for experimentation and movement, creates the optimal condition for learning. This enhances brain function and contributes to a child becoming an engaged and valued member of society, with well-developed problem-solving and social skills.
“The quality of a child’s experience in the first few years of life – positive or negative – shape how their brain develops,” FirstThingFirst.org reports. Promoting brain development through engaging play and activities is the lifeblood of constructivist theory and practice-driven toddler and preschool programs, such as those offered at Voyagers’ Community School. Progressive, constructivist schools feel unique. The moment a person walks through the door they encounter a lively environment where groups of children might be singing, storytelling, discussing, investigating, discovering and calculating. It’s also typical to see real tools of the trade including watercolors and proper paper, tape measures and hammers and nails, a balance scale and graph paper, and a stage with lights and costumes. The fundamental principle of this approach is that every child is a capable and competent learner from day one.
With insight into children’s interests and desire to know something or many things, teachers plan their curriculum. In these schools, there is the belief that children are empowered people, full of the desire and ability to grow up and construct their own knowledge. Early childhood theorist Loris Malaguzzi articulated this perspective perfectly when writing, “What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught. Rather, it is in large part due to children’s own doing as a consequence of their activities and our resources.” (The Hundred Languages of Children, Reggio Emilia Schools)
Progressive, constructivist preschool and toddler programs, such as the one at Voyagers’ Community School, are teeming in creative, imaginative and fully engaged learning. The program not only stimulates brain development but nurtures it. The teachers honor and encourage children’s vision, tenacity, initiative, imagination, generosity and exploration. Voyagers’ classrooms, like other well-tuned constructivist environments, are filled with a high level of enthusiasm, creativity, ingenuity, inquisitiveness, and individual and community satisfaction.
Undoubtedly, young children depend on their parents, caregivers, and teachers to help them develop the appropriate skills to lead healthy and successful lives. These positive relationships are especially important in their first five years. At home and in school, providing for children’s natural curiosity and creativity, with open-ended questions guiding learning, discovery and autonomy, children are set on a path toward understanding and succeeding in life.
Progressive, constructivist schools take their cue from ancient Greek philosopher and founder of the world’s first institution of higher learning Plato: “Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” After all, play is really the work of young children!
Call-out box: Diana Cascone, Preschool Director at Voyagers’ Community School and a graduate of Muhlenberg College with a degree in musical theatre, is committed to working collaboratively with parents and community partners to build and nurture classrooms that are connected to the passions in children’s lives.