For many years, teachers, parents and child care providers saw how young children learn through play. Studies of child development play, reading, and writing show that young children learn differently from adults. Young children must be active while they learn. They must experience first hand and in very real ways how things work, how spoken words can be written, and how reading helps them function in the world. Structured learning activities such as paper and pencil tasks, workbook pages, drill, and sitting and listening for long periods of time do not work for young children.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children represents the early childhood profession. Their book on developmentally appropriate practice and accreditation criteria define quality programs for young children. Developmentally appropriate environments help children develop in all areas—physical, social, creative, emotional, and cognitive. No one area of development is more important than another in the early years of a child’s life. It is often not possible to separate children’s development in one area from another.
For example, as a child masters a physical skill such as climbing, self-esteem grows. The new physical skill makes it possible for the child to learn more about the world and to interact with friends. Children use problem solving to learn and perfect each new mental, social or physical skill. This integrated approach to learning is one of the hallmarks of a developmentally appropriate program. Parents want a warm and loving person to care for their children. Research supports the importance of this relationship. Staff characteristics are the most important criteria for determining quality care.
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A trained provider will interact well with children because of her knowledge and expectations of behavior for that age group. A developmentally appropriate provider knows and works with each child as an individual. Individual children have their own interests that motivate their learning and good behavior. Developmentally appropriate programs value individual interests as strengths that help children learn In appropriate settings, teachers arrange learning centers in which small groups of children can work and play. These centers may be for different types of play: quiet, messy, and active.
Most programs have an area for block building, art, water play, playing house, music, books, table toys, and games. For school-aged children, there is an area for doing homework or projects. What most adults remember from their own public school experiences will not be in a quality early childhood program. There are no individual desks where each child sits to listen to the teacher and do work. There is no large space where everyone has to do the same thing at the same time. Children can choose to be with a friend or alone. This increases success in getting along with others.
They do not need to compete for materials or attention. It is easier to take turns. They learn to listen to others, express themselves, and eventually understand another person’s viewpoint.. The curriculum is everything that goes on throughout the day. Chances for learning occur during play and routines like snack, lunch and rest times. Children learn good health practices, positive social interactions, independence in self-care and decision making, as well as science, mathematics, music, art, language, and social studies. The caregiver plans learning activities after seeing the children’s interests and abilities.
Children learn the same thing in a variety of activities. They learn a variety of things in one activity. For instance, learning colors can take place in art, through songs and stories, through table games, cooking activities, and in costumes for play. There is no need to have children sit down and teach them the color red all at one time. There are many opportunities throughout the day for children to learn about colors as they actively work with materials. The children who already know about colors are not bored. They attend to other things like shape.
Trained child care teachers know that children grow according to predictable developmental patterns. They match activities to the children’s age and stage. For instance, children younger than three will have difficulty sharing. To reduce the conflicts over toys, a teacher provides more than one of each toy. The teachers model sharing as they work together. When a child does share, the teachers consistently compliment and encourage the child’s sharing. In an inappropriate program, the adults would impose sharing before children are developmentally ready to share, then they punish children for not sharing.
This results in frustration, behavior problems and unhappiness for children, parents and staff. Look for activities planned for an individual child. For example, you told the teachers that your family goes camping on weekends. The teacher puts out a tent, sleeping bags and picnic supplies for the children to use in play. A caregiver will provide musical instruments and recorded music for a child who shows an interest in music. After a child has been in the hospital, the teacher puts books and objects related to hospitals in the classroom for the children to use.
The child can tell others about the experience and play through fears and concerns. Individual children and their families feel valued when these activities relate to their interests and cultural backgrounds. A trained provider will not rush children to be ready for the next stage of development. Living this year fully is more important than getting an early start on next year’s curriculum. Children with diverse interests and learning styles do not experience boredom and frustration when the program offers creative activities and challenges so children can learn at their own pace.
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