Building an Early Childhood Program

18 Jan Building an Early Childhood Program

Article by Cathy Makropoulos, Director, Montclare Children’s School for 2019 issue of Parents League Review

Constructing a robust early childhood education program requires engineering similar to that needed to build a fine, sound house. In education as in architecture, a clear creative vision is essential if something enduring is to be built. Both undertakings demand a strong, sturdy foundation, scaffolding to support upward growth, and creativity to solve problems and add individuality and character. In education, the foundation is the curriculum, the scaffolding is teacher-guided instruction, and individuality and creativity come through open-ended play and
exploration. An equal balance of structure and creativity is important to the creation and delivery of an effective early childhood curriculum.

Early childhood programs strive to ensure each child’s holistic success academically, socially and emotionally. To achieve this, they adhere to established dogmatic requirements, assessing and documenting milestones to be met at each age level. These foundational elements include the standard early childhood developmental domains: physical, gross motor, fine motor, cognitive, language and social-emotional. The curriculum establishes these baselines well, but unstructured play as well as a teacher’s scaffolding techniques add to the beauty of the “house” that is a holistic education’s end product.

A Teacher-Guided Approach 

What differentiates one early childhood program from another is, primarily, its philosophical approach to teaching and how it achieves these commonly adopted baseline goals. A balanced approach that draws from various complementary pedagogical strategies may best provide a solid educational foundation. If we return to the original analogy, as form follows function in architecture, a well-crafted program should be developed to provide the best possible outcome. Structure and imaginative play may be combined to create a robust early childhood learning curriculum; when teacher-guided and open-ended activities are paired, imaginative play can deepen learning and the overall well-rounded educational experience.

A teacher-guided approach allows educators to meet students at their individual level, building on their strengths and expanding on their areas of growth. Teachers engage students in conversations throughout the day,
supporting exploration and learning while facilitating and assessing each child’s understanding. Children are encouraged to build on their own observations and experiences. In the learning centers found in most early
childhood classrooms, children explore materials thoughtfully chosen by teachers attuned to their interests or classroom themes so that specific developmental skills may be developed and assessed. Children often
work in small group settings and may practice a learned skill, or work cooperatively with other children.
Let’s explore what is happening at the writing center using a teacher-guided approach. The teacher asks the children to “write” (draw) a story about their families. When a child is finished, the teacher may ask: “Who
is in your story? What are the characters doing? What happens in the end?” By asking simple questions and listening, the teacher encourages young writers to add detail to their stories while supporting their efforts.
In an early childhood setting, the teacher will write down their answers or perhaps video record them using an iPad. Meaningful learning takes place when it is authentic and when students are engaged.

In the block area, allowing children to use their imagination and creativity while a teacher asks relevant questions creates an intentional learning experience. As a child builds a block structure, the teacher may ask, “How many rooms are in the house, and how many blocks are needed to create those rooms? What blocks can be combined to make new shapes?”

A teacher-guided approach supports creativity by unlocking children’s imagination and allowing them to build and design with intent. Children learn to cooperate and build interpersonal skills while demonstrating language development and storytelling. The teacher focuses on extending children’s thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills to achieve a meaningful learning opportunity by meeting them where they are through connections to family, routines, materials, and approach.

Free-Play And Exploration 

A very important function of an early childhood curriculum is to inspire and cultivate creativity. Open-ended play provides children with room to imagine, create, cooperate and communicate while building skills in all the developmental domains. The early childhood classroom should be arranged to encourage free-play and exploration. Play and hands-on activities are an integral part of children’s learning. Given the space to
think and react to situations in their own unique, personal ways, children take initiative, imagine, discover, investigate, design and flourish. Engaging in open-ended play also enhances critical-thinking skills.
When engaged in free-play, children develop their sense of independence and are able to take risks while experimenting with new materials or even finding a new purpose for existing materials and manipulatives. Exploring the various classroom centers during free-play is how children discover and become comfortable in their surroundings and learn. When playing with sand or water, children become familiar with important pre-math concepts, including mass and volume. Building with blocks, children learn cooperation, creativity and eye-hand coordination. They are also learning math skills such as patterning, counting, spatial relations, geometry,
adding, subtracting and classifying. At the writing center, language skills are enhanced while children
play roles, learn to take turns, problem-solve, take care of materials and learn to share. They are able to construct stories and practice patience while waiting their turn to use the center’s materials. Free-play empowers children to take the initiative to explore and create, giving them ownership of their learning as they play uninterrupted and without teacher intervention.

When children are engaged in open-ended play, their self-esteem is bolstered. They build community with their peers and are given a chance to learn about the importance of collaboration. Children may express their
feelings about the things that matter to them, a fundamental component of their social-emotional growth. Unfortunately, as children grow older and progress through the school system, less and less time is allocated
to play in or out of the classroom setting. As George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Striking The Balance

A well-built early childhood education program requires a thoughtful balance between structure and creativity. It starts with a strong foundation, a curriculum aimed to meet children’s developmental needs. Then the scaffolding necessary to reinforce that foundation is added in the form of teacher-guided instruction. As applied to play and free exploration, this scaffolding unlocks children’s practical reasoning, critical thinking, and imagination, and makes the learning experience personal, relevant and meaningful. A balanced delivery of curriculum ideally includes giving children opportunities to engineer and help design their own learning, while educational goals are being scaffolded and taught in a purposeful, stimulating and fun way. When they are in a nurturing, secure setting,
children can feel safe to explore and take intellectual risks. Thus, an optimal early childhood environment provides the support and tools for academic, emotional and social-emotional growth and development while
offering plenty of opportunities to explore and create. Educator and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson contends that “creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” Thus, an enduring, holistic educational home is constructed with careful attention to its solid foundation, secure
scaffolding, and ample, unfettered creativity.

Cathy Makropoulos, M.A.Ed, is the Director of Montclare Children’s School,
a preschool on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.


This article first appeared in the 2019 issue of Parents League Review.
© 2019 Parents League of New York