Do you remember your own delight when learning something new as a child? Then, doubling that delight when sharing memorable experiences with others? In our formative years, we are naturally curious and eager to discover the world around us. Now, as educators, we want to build on that enthusiasm to support children’s excitement about learning.
To create a healthy learning environment, keep this acronym in mind:
Think about your own setting and consider how well it measures up to these essential elements.
I for INTERACTIVE and INCLUSIVE
- Adults willingly respond to children by listening, noticing, cueing, participating, and actively engaging with them. This interactivity should be multisensory and multifaceted. It begins with observation and includes reciprocal communication, both verbal and nonverbal. This ongoing “dance” between adults and young children fosters healthy growth and development.
- A healthy ECE classroom is an equitable “community of learners” where all children are welcome, regardless of gender, sexuality, religion, socio-economic status, language, or abilities..
C for CARING and CONNECTED
- Caregivers and teachers strive to ensure that all children feel safe, secure, and loved. To achieve this, adults should willingly accept children’s feelings and expressions of emotion. Actions and words should demonstrate awareness, warmth, and sensitivity.
- Children learn best when new input and experiences build on their current level of understanding; adults should link new content to what children are already familiar with. Whenever possible, use a theme-based approach to strengthen those connections, so that ideas, vocabulary, and experiences relate to each other.
A for AFFIRMING
- Adults should build home-school partnerships that create bonds with families and children, aiming to overcome any barriers or biases, such as racial, cultural, socio-economic, or physical. It’s important to affirm that each child brings assets and strengths to a community of learners.
R for RESPECTFUL
- In a healthy ECE environment, adults and children accept others, respect differences, and appreciate each other. Courteous behavior is expected, in order to create and foster a safe, kind, and comforting place for learning
E for ENGAGING and EXPERIENTIAL
- ECE settings should offer stimulating experiences that activate neural connections among various domains. Caregivers and teachers should aim to nurture children’s curiosity and encourage their motivation to learn more. New content tends to capture children’s interest (the “wow” factor), and something silly or unusual will often grab their attention.
- Young children love to “get physical” and act things out, so hands-on, minds-on learning is optimal. Direct, concrete experiences enhance children’s cognitive growth, and socio-dramatic play engages children productively
- Children will relive and rehearse past experiences to reinforce their understanding, and those moments become a springboard for more communication.
If you’re confident that you’ve established a healthy environment to nurture children’s development, you’re ready to focus on best practices for ECE. The following strategies can lead the way to “delightful” learning, ensuring that your setting sparkles with joy.
Plentiful play and conversation
- “Play is a child’s work.” Through play, children learn to share, cooperate, collaborate, manage conflict, employ problem-solving skills, engage in self-talk and conversation, express emotions, use their imagination, and enjoy themselves. Given opportunities for interaction with appropriate materials and with others, children become happily immersed in these moments. Observe them, and you’ll notice how they harness their own background knowledge and apply skills to “make things work.” Through trial-and-error, young children refine their attempts for success with toys, equipment, and peer engagement. Whether it’s with puppets, child-sized kitchen tools, plastic ocean creatures, construction trucks, or costumes for dressing-up, children’s imaginations come alive as they dedicate brain power to figure out how to manipulate materials. At the same time, most young children will use language and verbal expressions that demonstrate developmental reasoning in action.
Lots of physical activity and movement
- Young children need to be physically active. Their bodies are growing and changing rapidly as gross motor and fine motor skills develop and advance. Be respectful of their limitations for sitting still too long, and use movement as a “stress buster.” If you play simple listening games that call for physical response, such as “Simon Says,” you will have a captive audience eagerly applying auditory cues to win by following directions. In circle-time gatherings, review colors and basic vocabulary by calling out conditional statements that ask for responsive movement, such as “If you’re wearing a blue shirt, stand up.” It’s amazing how enthusiastically children will participate in anything that seems like a fun game with physical activity. Teach them the sign language alphabet and a few expressions with hand signs, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly they catch on. For many young children, physical actions and reactions may be easier and more memorable than verbal communication. And, no matter what’s going on in a busy or noisy ECE setting, hand gestures and signs are readily recognizable.
Rich in rhythm and music
- Children are naturally inclined to tune into patterns, and they love to identify and follow physical, visual, and acoustic patterns. Orderly arrangements are an essential ingredient of language, mathematics, and music, so supporting children’s abilities to recognize, discriminate, reproduce, and create patterns fosters cognitive growth. Starting with marching and clapping to music and then adding percussive instruments to practice patterns will help children improve their sense of rhythm and awareness of patterns. Nursery rhymes and short poems also boost listening skills and pattern recognition. Children can memorize the words and increase their self-confidence when reciting what they’ve learned during circle time or in small group activities.
- Most children are music lovers who enjoy rhythmic melodies with repeating patterns, such as “The Wheels on the Bus,” “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” and “The Eensy, Weensy Spider.” You can also add a simple melody to certain phrases or expressions to help children remember target vocabulary and concepts. For example, when working with colors, this poem about a favorite color can be set to a melody line: “Red is an apple; green is a tree; blue is the sky, and purple’s for me.” Of course, children always have great fun moving and touching body parts while singing the familiar “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes” tune, or “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” Musical experiences activate a specific part of the human brain, and music activities are beneficial for children’s cognitive development.
Early literacy engagement
- Communication is the foundation of language and literacy, which in turn, serve as windows to the world around us. Young children need ample experiences with books to fuel their interest in the printed word. Adult-child interactions in the context of shared reading provide pleasurable stimulation and meaningful bonding. Appropriate literature selections with engaging visuals prompt children’s focused attention. Neurological connections are triggered as they look, listen, and make sense of what they see and hear. Often, children will want to experience the same stories over and over again, which can reinforce and expand rudimentary understanding of language and content.
- Reading about what happens to others can also support social-emotional development. Children may see themselves in similar situations presented in stories and find comfort knowing how someone else responded. Learning to accept their own emotions as “okay” and discovering possible ways of handling those feelings is an essential aspect of healthy growth.
Open-ended opportunities and creative fun
- Children thrive on routines and predictable structure, but they also need opportunities for open-ended discovery. In ECE settings, they should have access to materials that allow for free play and imaginative exploration, such as wooden blocks and shapes, interlocking blocks, stacking cups, balance scales, salt dough, eye droppers, water toys, a variety of containers, etc. They should also have ready access to materials for drawing and writing, such as washable markers, crayons, paper, easels, paintbrushes, and colorful paint. Those experiences build fine motor skills, as well as providing ways for children to express and record their own ideas for others to view. Adults should be available to talk to children about whatever they choose to do with these open-ended materials, as this promotes verbal exchanges and mutual sharing.
- No doubt, you’ve had moments when children’s creativity has surprised you. You might agree that they can make just about anything interesting! That said, be sure to give young children time to “play” with their own imagination. They are “creative designers” at heart who enjoy putting things together or taking them apart to make something new or unusual. They are experts at dramatization who like to emulate what they’ve seen others do or heard others say, with their own personal twist. Applaud them for these creative efforts. Encourage them to be bold in creative expressions of their own design. You’ll be richly rewarded with genuine smiles that light up your ECE setting.
If you are interested in ECE consulting support for your program provided by Dr. Melissa King, please send your request to firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author:
Dr. Melissa King has a Ph D. in science education and a Masters in linguistics. She is a professional consultant who supports learning programs for educators across the country and has worked as a director and content expert at non-profit organizations and for-profit companies. Dr. King has built online programs and multi-media products in the digital space for Pre-K- grade 12, including a Pre-school curriculum called EmbarK12. She has been a graduate instructor at the University of Virginia, George Mason University, and Kaplan University and recently developed online training modules for the CDA (Child Development Associate).