Learners and Learning in the Early Years

The curriculum from Birth to Year 2

The enduring and changing context of childhood at the beginning of the new millennium demands the construction of new meanings and learning. The dynamic nature of Australian society presents a challenge, and offers the opportunity for innovative, inclusive and rigorous curriculum, and pedagogical development that supports equitable Learning Outcomes for all children. A quality early childhood curriculum engages the hearts, minds, bodies and spirits of children and the people who work with them. The Early Years Band is the first and most important step in framing a curriculum for children from birth through to the first years of school. Curriculum improvement is fundamental to addressing success for all children, particularly during critical periods in the Early Years, when learning can be maximised. If this early advantage is missed, learning may be much slower, more difficult, and more expensive, in social and economic terms, to revisit in later life.

The SACSA Framework challenges changing educational realities. The need to create programs that are responsive to children and their families stimulates dialogue and collaboration between early childhood educators working in child care, preschools and the first years of school. Approximately ten thousand practitioners work in these diverse early childhood settings in South Australia. The Framework provides guidance for educators to support continuity between settings, in that it enables better understanding of children’s prior learning and makes connections through educational planning to future learning. The term ‘educators’ is used in the Early Years Band of the SACSA Framework to describe all adults who have a responsibility to develop and implement curriculum in children's services and the first years of school.

The Band is organised into three phases, intended for educators working with children from Birth-Age 3, Age 3-Age 5, and Reception-Year 2. The Early Years Band extends the previous work done in early childhood curriculum development in South Australia through the Foundation Areas of Learning and Band A of the statements and profiles.

This Band is based on the understanding that each child is unique and yet shares the social and cultural aspects of life around them, and that their learning and development are not linear. It allows for multiple entry points and for different developmental pathways to reflect the wide range of development and abilities and the linguistic and cultural diversity of children.

The Early Years Band is designed to stimulate reflection and action in developing local curriculum. A responsive, inclusive curriculum rests on the ability of educators to understand, value and work with diverse South Australian communities and, together, challenge a stereotypical, monocultural view of Australian childhood.

Early childhood can be a time of delight, discovery and wonder. Central to the Early Years Band is an uncompromising view of the child as capable of co-constructing knowledge and understanding.

Learning in the Early Years

Children enter early childhood settings as active, experienced learners.

Children in the Early Years:

Early childhood educators demonstrate deep respect for the abilities of children as they take up the role of jointly constructing meaning with them. Social constructivist approaches to learning recognise the child as a co-constructor of meaning and knowledge. These approaches build on neo-Piagetian research and the work of Vygotsky, and recognise that the child’s construction of meaning and understanding is mediated and modified by social interactions within their families, communities and environments. The role of the family, community, culture and early childhood educator is foregrounded in this theoretical perspective.

Using a social constructivist approach, early childhood educators make decisions about co-constructing learning based on the recognition that:

Insights from research

Early childhood educators are engaged in a continual process of decision-making as they work with children. In making decisions, they draw on multidimensional perspectives of development and learning. Their understanding of child development has broadened as knowledge has increased through significant research in disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, critical psychology, physiology and neuroscience.

Current brain research is contributing to understandings of the ways children learn and develop. The first years of life are marked by critical periods during which the brain is most ready for appropriate stimulation and nurturing from social environments. The brain is still developing and connections are gradually established that form the structures, networks or ‘maps’ that govern actions and understandings. Constant change in the networks, and in their sophistication, is the direct result of interactions and observation, and of repetition and curiosity. In the Early Years, it appears that the connections between thought and language are securely laid down and that a child’s capacity to learn is increased through language based interaction. The research has implications for early childhood educators in that, while it highlights the importance of stimulation, it identifies the potential harm that stressful and inappropriate stimulation and intervention can do to the child’s learning and dispositions to learn. Careful consideration of programs and interventions are essential, in light of this research. Theories of social reconstruction focus the aims of education on an agenda of social reform, greater social justice and emancipation, and place an emphasis on societal needs over individual needs. (MacNaughton 1999a).

This approach depends on educators engaging in the processes of critical reflection, debate and discussion to uncover assumptions, bias and restrictive practice which may limit opportunities for all children (Cannella 1997).

Partnerships with families and communities

Families are central to a child’s early learning; and skilled early childhood professionals build on the knowledge these significant people contribute to understanding the child. They create climates that reflect and appreciate the diversity in our communities, by seeking ideas, and listening to and sharing perspectives. By understanding individual families’ expectations and aspirations for children and finding out how they can complement their efforts, they actively promote meaningful partnerships with families and communities and support each child’s learning and sense of belonging.

Children are particularly aware of the emotions of adults working with them, and relationships with their families and communities. Early childhood educators recognise the importance of modelling the attitudes, dispositions, values and interpersonal skills they want children to practise and learn. The central importance of relationships, as the basis on which all learning takes place, is fundamental to the intent of the SACSA Framework. The Essential Learning of Interdependence centres on children’s development of a sense of being connected with others, their capability to contribute to the welfare of others, and their capability to act cooperatively. The Framework rests on the premise that the synergy created by the process of shared learning is made possible only in environments where relationships are characterised by mutual respect, trust, effective communication, compassion and responsiveness.

Learning environments

In considering the best interests of children, careful attention must be paid to safe, secure and aesthetically pleasing environments which are inclusive and reflect, value and respect the diversity of children’s backgrounds. Because children investigate and explore their surroundings through play, environments play a critical role. Children are developing the Essential Learnings of Futures, Identity, Interdependence, Thinking and Communication as they use imagination and creativity, show initiative, use a wide range of thinking modes, and begin to develop capabilities to utilise literacy, numeracy and ICTs to interpret and shape the world around them. Children use personal space, time and resources to explore, experiment, discover and manipulate. Early childhood educators create places within environments where children can practise their developing skills and understandings. Repetition can offer opportunities for enjoyment and practice as children consolidate new skills and understandings. Space needs to be organised to provide for individual, small group and large group learning and interaction. Children need time to process and reflect, to be alone, to be quiet, to watch others or to rest and think.

Play

Through play children express their ideas and engage in exploration, imagination, experimentation and manipulation. These skills are essential for the construction of meaning and knowledge that will contribute to the development of representational thought. It is through their exploratory, sensory, social, physical, constructive, imaginative, projective, role and dramatic play that children examine and refine learning in relation to environments and other people. As children's play becomes more rule oriented, their social, emotional and intellectual development is enhanced through the development of autonomy and cooperation. Children's knowledge, skills, understandings and dispositions will be extended and strengthened effectively through both child-initiated and adult-initiated play experiences. The enduring learnings described as Essential Learnings are practised and rehearsed as children engage in play. For example, as children play with others, they have the opportunity to put into practice the Essential Learning of Interdependence as they develop personal and group knowledges and preferences. In experimenting with roles, technologies and situations, they are empowered to act upon and influence their environment, and this is an aspect of the Futures Essential Learning.

There is general agreement regarding the five main functions of play in the lives of young children (Perry 1998).

As children play alone and with others, they act on their ideas, using multimedia, technology and objects. As they play they construct meaning which is always contextualised in their experience. Play in early childhood is a creative process and it is through play that children learn new skills and symbolically represent their world. Children integrate their learning through their ideas, experiences, feelings and relationships, rehearsal, re-creation, imitation, invention and imaginary roles.

Early childhood educators have important roles to play in the development of children's play, and through thoughtful and sensitive support they can add to the richness, purpose and complexity of play. Research emphasises the importance of the role of adults in play situations as a continuum (Dockett & Fleer 1999).

 

Indirect---------------------------------------------------------------Direct

Adult as manager

Manages time, space and resources

Adult as facilitator

Adult as mediator, promoter of equity and interpreter of play

Adult as player

Adult engages in parallel play, co-playing or play tutoring

Early childhood educators value play as being central to an effective Early Years curriculum and they work in partnership with families to build a shared understanding of play, and strategies that enable all children to be confident in their play participation.

Dispositions

One important aspect of care and education is the role early childhood educators play in relation to children’s dispositions. Katz (1993) defines dispositions as ‘relatively enduring habits of mind or characteristic ways of responding to experience across types of situations’.

They are learning orientations which become part of intrinsic motivation. The shaping of positive and robust dispositions in the Early Years advantages children’s educational and social outcomes. The development of enabling dispositions such as curiosity, openness, optimism, resilience, concentration and creativity begins at birth. They are fostered in trusting and respectful relationships, when children feel safe, participate, take risks and succeed. Dispositions are recognised and described as significant aspects of all the Essential Learnings. With support and scaffolding, dispositions for learning can be fostered, learned and taught.

Literacy, numeracy and information and communication technologies (ICTs)

The increasing complexity of communication and language used by children is a feature of this Band. Language is central to all learning as children acquire their first language, make meaning of their world, and develop their social relationships. Through listening and responding to conversations, stories, songs, rhymes, and popular culture such as television, children increasingly discriminate between the sounds of words and phrases and symbols to construct meaning.

The commitment to children’s learning with literacy, numeracy and ICTs recognises that their knowledge, skills and dispositions in these areas enable them to make meaning of their world and communicate their understandings to others. This learning is an aspect of the Essential Learning of Communication. The development of these skills and understandings is influenced by the contexts in which they are used, the role of the adults working with children, the intended purposes and the available technologies. The social and cultural contexts within which these understandings are developed play an important role in the way they are taken up in early childhood settings. The diversity of home languages (eg the strengths that multilingual contexts provide, and valuing the funds of knowledge that children bring from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds) is recognised as a fundamental aspect for developing continuity. Facilitating ongoing learning and success in these critically important aspects of the child’s world is enhanced through opportunities and experiences in multiliteracies and ICTs.

The role of the educator

The values, skills, knowledge and understandings children bring to early childhood settings express the rich fabric of Australian society. The role of the early childhood educator is to foster and build on these diverse funds of knowledge. A child’s feeling of belonging is directly related to the connections and relationships they make in the early childhood setting. As educators communicate with children, meanings are interpreted and expressed using multiple forms of representation, such as drawing, graphics, sculpture, music, dance, drama and play. The Essential Learning of Identity involves children developing understandings of self, group and others and the social construction of identities. Active participation in learning contributes to the child’s sense of self as they learn the intersections and connections between their world and the worlds of others. As children collaborate, they learn from and with each other, and their learning is extended as they experience diverse perspectives.

In a curriculum based on social constructivist approaches, educators establish and foster learning partnerships with and between children. Within these relationships, children make meaning and build knowledge with their educators and peers by playing and talking together about what they are seeing, hearing, doing, feeling and thinking as they uncover, express and share ideas.

Early childhood educators facilitate the child’s process of creating and developing theories about the world, including building on the possibilities of diverse and flexible constructions of gender, class, culture, race and disability, and challenging narrow and socially divisive behaviours or attitudes.

Educators draw on multiple dimensions and understandings of how children learn, to inform decisions about how best to support learning. Early childhood pedagogy includes co-constructing, deconstructing, documenting, empowering, philosophising, problem-solving, reinforcing, scaffolding, and analysing and valuing (MacNaughton & Williams 1998).

Decisions about curriculum are embedded in world views and value systems. Early childhood educators are engaged in dynamic decision-making processes as they work with the children in their care. Reflection enables them to analyse their work and ‘trouble the things we take for granted’ (Giroux, H. pers comm). In so doing, educators continue their learning. If they are to meet the challenge of inclusive, relevant curriculum and pedagogy in early childhood, it is essential that their ability to reflect on practice is developed. Significant curriculum reform and improvement in outcomes for children occur as practitioners critically reflect on aspects of pedagogy, share research, and act always in the best interest of the children in their care.

 

References and bibliography

Cannella, G.S. 1997 Deconstructing early childhood education: Social justice and revolution, rethinking childhood. Vol 2 NY, Peter Lang Publishing.

Dockett, S. & Fleer, M. 1999 Play and pedagogy in early childhood, Marrickville NSW, Harcourt Brace.

Katz, L. 1993 Dispositions: Definitions and implications for early childhood practices. Urbana Ill, Eric Clearing House on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

MacNaughton, G. 1999a Early childhood review: Curriculum issues in research and in action, discussion paper for consultation. Hobart, Department of Education.

MacNaughton, G. 1999b Saris & skirts, Gender equity and multiculturalism. AECA Research in Practice Series. Australian Capital Territory, Australian Early Childhood Association.

MacNaughton, G. & Williams, G. 1998 Techniques for teaching young children: Choices in theory and in practice. Sydney, Addison Wesley Longman.

Perry, R. 1998 Playbased preschool curriculum. Brisbane, Queensland University of Technology.