Op-Ed: A fresh approach to early childhood education is needed

Staff Writer
Gonzales Weekly Citizen

The Garden School of Prairieville says that early childhood education education in the U.S. should be growing children for emotional, social and intellectual excellence.

They argue America's educational system is far more focused on high stakes achievement testing and teacher performance levels, rather than focusing on helping children become independent, responsible, and productive members of society.

The school proposes a Montessori-based approach:

"Once upon a time, we understood that the purpose of education was to bring the young into the community of adults; to teach them how to be like us, to be our equals. Yes, there is a distinction between the young and the adult, between the apprentice and the master, but it is clear that the young are there to learn how to learn the things that we know, to join their parents and other adults as full members of the society in which they will live. All too many schools today teach in a never-never land divorced from the greater society. How can we teach children to live in a democracy, when they spend 15 years living under a benevolent dictatorship?" (Tim Seldin, The International Montessori Counsel).

Currently in America, our educational system is far more focused on high stakes achievement testing and teacher performance levels, rather than focusing on helping children become independent, responsible, and productive members of society. Assessments should not measure what the teacher has taught or the students have learned in an end of itself, but rather on what the student has achieved in oder to advance the students even further. Achievement scores should be used to guide students to higher skill development and to be self monitors of their own strengths and weaknesses.

We believe that every child is gifted in his or her own way. In providing opportunities for children to grow emotionally, socially, and academically the environment envelopes the practice of "learning through living", fosters the development of the "will of a child", encourages love, kindness, and compassion, and provides a safe haven where they feel safe and secure. Assessments should be used to grow children's skill levels and to prepare them for real world experiences.

Most educators and psychologist today agree that the single most important period in the development of a person's intelligence occurs between birth and age five. A problem occurring in our schools is the massive numbers of children in small spaces who are confined to chairs with limited space and environment for exploration and discovery. They are placed on rigid schedules with inflexible lesson agendas. A basic human need is to know that we have control over our lives and environment. When there is an absence of this, it can lead to depression and learned helplessness. Children need to have the opportunity to freely move about the learning space and have the option to choose their learning for the time they need to complete the task.

We believe a developmentally appropriate village atmosphere where children move from room to room, to garden, to outdoor learning areas, and to outdoor playground is essential. Within these spaces children choose if they want to sit on the floor using work mats, sit at a group table, sit at a single table, or stand. Creative play furnishings provide opportunity for the child to lead in imaginative play which fosters individual expression, independence and cooperative frames of development with peers. Manipulative play materials encourage skill development in fine motor, logic, and hand-eye coordination and creative representation. The garden provides a place for children to learn valuable lessons about patience as they wait for vegetables to grow, responsibility as they see how necessary their care is to the garden and even loss when flowers die at the end of a season. They learn about nurturing a life. The schedule must be flexible to their needs and be guided with common core or Montessori based lessons that are adaptable at any moment to meet individual student needs and interests. Every teachable moment should be developed to the fullest with no time limits.

"In too many classrooms, education is based on domination rather than partnership, community, and respect. Despite decades of attempts to reform education, our schools still depend on adult-established external structure, rewards, and punishments to motivate and control children" (Tim Seldin, The International Montessori Council).

It is not about the standards we teach, but about the community we develop between students, parents, and teachers. When this community is in sync with each other, the children will flourish. Together we should thrive on on a spirit of kindness and respect. Together we should rely on self motivation and self-discipline. Together, we need to inspire our students with a passion for learning through exploration and discovery.

The Garden School's natural environment is rich in discovery learning, and combines elements of The Garden-Based Learning Project, Research Based Developmentally Appropriate Practices, Montessori Methods, and the newCommon Core State Standards for Public School PreKindergarten and Kindergarten. The multiple methodological approach that we use here at TGS brings together a collection of practices in which research and history prove to be most effective in preparing young children for educational success. At the core of our approach is a deep respect for humanity and an appreciation of the opportunity we have to instill in children a sense of love and respect for others and our world. We acknowledge each child as a distinct individual who deserves every opportunity to develop his/her physical, intellectual, and spiritual self to the fullest.