Are we confident that our school represents the best of what early childhood education can be?
Are we confident that our methods are helpful for developing secure and able children? Yes. Is our approach grounded in historical and contemporary research, representing the best of what is available? Yes. Do we know our pedagogy and philosophy works? Yes – thanks to the hundreds of smiles we see every day.
No. We’re not sure. We’re not always sure what we’re doing here on the 2nd floor.
In the nascent filed of child study, the learning curve over the past century has been incredibly steep. We are at a place today, here and now, of extraordinary insight into the development of the human mind. This was not always the case. By zooming out and looking at our school as a point in time, one dot in the fabric of how we understand children, we realize that so much unknown knowledge lies ahead. As much as we know, there is even more to learn. As excellent as our classroom environment is, there is so much room for growth.
Let me explain.
Play historian Joe Frost reports Edward Hale writing in 1842 that the floor of his wooden school house in Boston (population: 40,000) was “sanded with clean sand twice a week…[so] the children were able to make sand pies with their feet.” Hale continues with contempt that “later schools where carpets on the kindergarten floors did not allow sand for playing, so that teachers had to provide lay for modeling and heaps of sand in the backyard.”
In 1890, Professor W.T. Preyer decides to closely observe and document the life and stages of babies. In the preface to his book of that year, The Mind of The Child, he writes that he has found, “only very little trustworthy material and accordingly I confine myself to my own observations.” Milicent Washburn, ten years later in a similar book of child study, writes, “Very little has been done in the scientific study of the ontogenetic evolution…of babies.” In 1912, H.G. Wells writes his own guide on making toys for children because he is fed up with “toy-shop acquisitions.” He explains, “How utterly we despise those silly little bricks of the toyshops!” Two decades later, Margaret Lowenfeld publishes the first history of play, Play in Childhood. She writes, “There is hardly any feature of human life to which so little serious consideration has been given as that of children’s play. The field is so vast and our knowledge of it is so infinitesimal.” She reports, “It is a common practice to undervalue the intellectual equipment of young children.”
Imagine giving birth to your miraculous baby in those decades. Where to turn for baby advice? Where to go for baby supplies? Imagine a teacher of young children in those decades. Where to go for mentorship? What to consult with questions about development appropriate practice?
Slowly, knowledge emerged: with prescient insight, Lowenfeld concludes that “A child will explore his experience with deep and absorbed concentration,” foreshadowing the philosophy of later giants in the field such as Montessori, Dewey, and the ideas stemming from Reggio Emilio. In the first half of the 20th century, psychologists Piaget and Vygotsky separately began the monumental undertaking of investigating how children develop knowledge. Not until the second half of the 20th century would their ideas take root in America. And not until the 1990s would the Reggio Emilio approach find its place here, when Newsweek declared the preschools of northern Italy among the best in the world.
And now, when a new parent (as my wife and I anxiously await our first in about a month) is concerned about this or that, there are of course countless (too many?) resources to consult: the web, community members, professionals in the field, and so on. Early childhood teachers today are fortunate to have a wealth of empirically backed theories in which to work.
So, no, we are not sure that what we are doing represents our eventual best. We know that our field is based on accumulated knowledge, and that the trajectory of this knowledge is still rapidly climbing. To respect the fact that we have much to learn, we are dedicated to contributing back to the field. Susan Lytle writes that schools must “makes accessible some of the expertise of teachers.” She advocates for teachers themselves as the creators of this continuously new knowledge. It is within this view that we see our school.
Our teachers are both experts and learners. They are knowledgeable question askers. They are committed to increasing not only their own professional practice but the knowledge base of the field. So when we speak of growth, it is not only our young ones that we mean. We mean ourselves, and we mean our school.
We are thrilled to be part of a wider community that supports this inquiry-based approach to schooling. Please join us in questioning what we do and encouraging our continued growth.