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The Art of Developmentally Appropriate Early Childhood Education

Published in ChicagoNow, January 6, 2016

There is no better place to lift my spirits on a dreary winter day than Cherry Preschool. I stopped by the school where I served for 15 years as founding director to make copies for a meeting about kindergarten that I will be co-hosting next week. As I looked at the children’s art displays, it hit me. Programs like Cherry Preschool are what early childhood education should look like.

The collage pictured above of the children in one of the classes was always one of my favorite activities. The children mix “people color” paints until they match their skin tone. No one at Cherry Preschool is black or white. The kids find their unique color that really has no label. It is just their beautiful color.

Looking at all of the winter displays, I was struck once again by the respect for each child’s unique approach. Just as no two snowflakes are alike, each snowperson is different and special. This acceptance of and appreciation for differences is at the heart of developmentally appropriate education.

One classroom of three-year-olds learned so much by creating puffy snow people:

  • Creative expression: Each child chose from a variety of materials to create a unique work of art.

  • Representational thinking: Children first talked about what they needed to create a snow “person” – face, body, arms, accessories.

  • Fine motor skills: The children used spoons to spread a mixture of shaving cream and liquid glue onto the snow person template. They used their fingers to place small objects like buttons and fabric on their creations.

  • Sensory exploration: Children explored the shaving cream mixture, observed that it looked like whipped cream, smelled it, and touched it (if they wanted to).

  • Social studies: The class talked about the properties of real snow and the fun activities they could do with snow.

  • Literacy: The teachers read Snowmen at Night, The Snowy Day, and Snow to the children.

  • Science: The class discussed how their pretend “puffy snow” was not cold like real snow. They learned that shaving cream on its own will dry flat, but mixed with glue it stays puffy – a bit of chemistry.

How much more they learned from this approach than from a worksheet about winter or from coloring in snowmen.

Another classroom put up this art display of the children’s shape people designed to look like themselves:

Through this activity, the four-year-olds learned about shapes (math and geometry), color (art and creative expression), and had the opportunity to develop their fine motor skills to glue the pieces down for the shape people.

Children can learn the foundational skills for reading and writing through play rather than through rote direct instruction. One class created observational drawings of an evergreen branch.

These drawings are the equivalent of note taking for preschoolers. The children observed the evergreen branch closely and drew their interpretation of what they saw. Then they worked with the teacher to label parts of their drawing. What did they learn? Observational skills, verbal and labeling skills, fine motor and representational skills were strengthened by this activity that each child did at her own developmental level.

When children are allowed to be creative and to learn through play-based activities, the result can literally be a barn raising:

I stopped in a classroom to visit with two of my former colleagues. They showed me a new way to help young children understand the calendar and the passage of time. The ritual of the calendar is part of almost every early education program. But for many children, even in kindergarten, it makes little sense. Thus. I often joked about this typical conversation:

Teacher: If yesterday was Monday, then today is… Children: February

But these educators had created a paper chain, the last link of which was green to represent Spring. Each day, they have a child cut off a link so the children can understand the passage of time in a concrete way that makes sense to them.

I’m so glad I stopped by Cherry Preschool today. The visit restored my faith in developmentally appropriate education for young learners. Knowing how young children learn helps all of us to remember to advocate for educational approaches that light the spark of creativity and kindle a lifelong love of learning.


by Laurie Levy
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