I attended a professional development weekend in Portland recently. The host of the training was an established Reggio inspired program that serves children from infants to five years of age. One breakout session featured documentation and discussion about children in two different classes and age groups. The session shared a story about children of different ages coming together and discovering each other. The teachers shared the journey of the children and what has been learned so far. The presentation provoked and ignited my thinking. I reflected on my transition from presenting a “factory style” curriculum to a play based constructivist journey with school age children.
In center-based preschool a common practice is to provide separate classes and playgrounds for children of different ages. The children may interact with each other in passing, but mostly play, learn and interact with their peers. During my years as an educator, I have primarily worked with school-age children. In school age care all of the children from kindergarten though fifth grade are together in one program, and one space. Most school age programs are in multipurpose spaces, large rooms in school cafeterias or gyms. I think concerns about physical space, age range, and fears about control, are contributing factors to a “factory style” curriculum still surviving in many afterschool programs.
The “factory style” curriculum is still used in school age, mainly to address the large numbers of children in afterschool programs. Many years ago I supervised one program for a few months with 150 children, and my program was not the smallest in the district. With so many children there is a small chance for lasting program quality. As I became older and wiser, I met some great people, who introduced me to The Schools of Reggio Emilia. By learning about their practices, I changed my practice, and made it my mission to introduce a different approach of learning to school age children.
Fast forward to last weekend, I was listening to an interesting narrative about how two different ages of children came together and learned about each other, not by their assumptions, but by spending time together. The workshop motivated me to think deeper about the programs I have participated in. There is one aspect I did not share about the “factory style” curriculum. In school age programs a common practice is to separate the children for work and play, by grades, just like in school. When I started as an educator, I was told the children needed to be separate to learn, for safety, and so younger children would not experience negative words and actions from the older children.
Separating children was accomplished with space and furniture, or by placing children in separate portable buildings. I believe the real goal is control and compliance. It is an environment, with teacher driven work, and predictable outcomes. This method does not enhance overall skills or teach children how to handle social encounters they will experience later in life.
After I learned the possibilities of child directed learning, I made the decision to only participate in programs where all the children could work together. We are together as a learning community. It can be challenging, with the seven-year age gap from the youngest to the oldest. As the youngest children learn to work and negotiate with the older children, the teachers, through observation and scaffolding, are present to provide assistance and help the group work better together.
The program is facilitated with smaller group sizes and proper ratios, which is lacking in many afterschool programs. I wanted children to choose their own work, and children who have a passion for a certain subject or material to work together. By working on a common goal, the children learn that rumors they hear about a certain age, and the actions they witness in school, are not the way all children of a different age act.
They can learn kindness from an 11 year old and that many 5-year-old children are exceptionally creative at construction. They can learn to help another person, to respect those who are different, and to look past what they are told, and to see what is really happening, and make their own judgment. And make new friends of all ages.