The word “curriculum” is a term used often in early childhood education. By definition the word curriculum means, “The subjects comprising a course of study in a school.” Or “a set of courses constituting an area of specialization.” In practice, we often refer to curriculum in early childhood education as instruction or offerings that help children develop in the area of language and literacy, social and emotional development, physical development, and cognitive development.
NAEYC says curriculum, “Provides a guide for teachers and administrators. It helps them work together and balance different activities and approaches to maximize children’s learning and development.” How can the idea of curriculum in early childhood education be expressed differently? Instead of a system that pours information or ideas into children hoping to achieve a certain outcome, curriculum could be a philosophy, the guiding light of how we view children. Then teachers could use this light to shape our actions and interactions within the learning community.
There are some well-known schools of practice in early childhood education, like The Municipal Schools of Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Waldorf, Lifeways, forest schools, and play based cooperatives. What these schools have in common is a standard of practice, a belief system about early childhood education that informs their work with children. Some of these schools have more linear structures in the curriculum than others, but they all have one thing in common, the children come first. Their guiding light is that the children are the creators of their own knowledge and the teacher is available to guide and support their learning journey.
Looking closer at the different schools mentioned above, there are certain guiding lights in the practice of these programs that stand out as lighthouses for all people who work in early childhood education. These philosophical lighthouses are thoughtful ways of practice that teachers and children would gravitate to naturally without a thought of it being a curriculum.
Guiding Light. We are all natural explorers and children are no different. Children seek to explore their world, and their explorations are filled with learning opportunities. The opportunities discovered during exploration are a gateway for children and teachers to explore further together, and build not only answers to questions but relationships in the learning community.
Guiding Light. Teachers are curious; they often become teachers to share their love of learning with others. Teachers need the freedom to explore their wonderings and the wonderings of the children without the weight of standardized outcomes and expectations from outside sources. The freedom and joy of learning that attracted a person to become a teacher must be preserved so the joy of learning can be passed on to young children.
Guiding Light. Children love choosing their own work. All children have multiple intelligences, and engage in developing different aspects of these intelligences when they are ready. The freedom for children to choose the what, when, why, and how of the work they are doing in the moment, helps strengthen their strengths and develop their weaknesses. As a teacher we have the opportunity to encourage this freedom, come along for the journey, and explore children’s questions instead of giving answers.
Guiding Light. Parents are partners in the learning community. We all have families, and our family provides comfort, wisdom, assistance, and guidance when we most need it. The parents are part of the early childhood education family and need to be invited and encouraged to participate in the learning community. Creating a sense of belonging fosters opportunities to grow together and learn from each other.
Guiding Light. Outside play is important, and movement is something children seek to participate in often. Having a rich play life is important for all aspects of our well being. I am not talking about physical education. Exercise is the adult way of taking a desire we have to be connected to free play in the natural world and turning it into a job. Children see through this charade and have a natural play spirit that can be stripped away by the demands of structure and rigor in the modern educational landscape. It’s okay to play! Give children the freedom to explore, expand, and test their social and physical gifts without the demands of a clock or something more “educational” to do.
Guiding Light. Our environment is our calling card. It not only tells visitors what we believe about children, it tells the children what we believe about their capabilities. Creating a rich inviting environment will open up the possibilities for children to explore, expand, and create new pathways to answer the wonderings they have about their interests. A variety of simple organized materials and spaces will open and calm the mind, offering children the opportunity to be intentional and create the work of their imagination.
These are a few examples of lighthouses that I believe separate a children lead approach to early childhood education from an approach that just follows a curriculum. There are many more pathways of light out there and many more are being created daily by dedicated people who work to see children grow up happy and thrive in their school and community. Keep searching for the guiding lights in the practices you learn about, read about, and employ and bring new possibilities into your program. Look to embrace ideas and values that place children first.