Learning environment needs to support young children’s complex development

Last week 12 preschool children from the Adelaide Early Childhood Centre in Wellington, along with their teachers, caught the cable car to Kelburn and the botanical gardens.

This experience offered a complex array of learning opportunities that were new to some children while familiar to others.

As well as helping children see themselves as active members of society by getting into the wider world and seeing other people going about their everyday business, there were the obvious learning opportunities like questions around generating power to run a cable car.

For young children, inspiration and learning to think is key. For children, a successful education is being inspired about wanting to find out more and having strategies to think further about why things are and why things happen.

As a kindergarten teacher I marvelled on a daily basis at the complexity of young children’s learning. As an academic and researcher I continue to be confronted by that complexity.

Yet how to support that learning and development is a minefield of doubt and debate, particularly from politicians.

Complex learning and development cannot be reduced to a simplified, measurable performance. Instead, children need to be able to explore, be curious and take risks in an environment relevant to them.

Leaders and teachers can make a difference in children’s lives when they are valued and trusted as professionals who have a deep understanding of the complexity of children’s learning.

This value and trust must be recognised through appropriate remuneration and working conditions that support the planning, assessing, and evaluating of learning and teaching with young children and their families.

Not only is young children’s learning complex on an individual level, there’s a huge amount of diversity of learning amongst a group of children. In other words, there is no standardisation to how and when young children learn which means that teachers need a wide range of skills and knowledge to effectively respond to this diversity.

When I am interviewing prospective applicants for our initial teacher education programmes it is very common for those applicants to talk about how their limited experience with children has highlighted the complexity of children’s learning. Many of these applicants realise they need to take the time to gain knowledge and skills about children’s learning. Therefore they clearly see the importance of completing a qualification.

Another crucial aspect for recognising and responding to complex learning is teacher’s attitudes and dispositions towards their own learning and teaching. Teachers who are open-minded, reflective, thoughtful and critical will adapt and adopt teaching practices that take account of diversity and complexity.

Opportunities for teachers to engage in on-going professional learning need to be provided and resourced so that teachers can be continually exposed to a range of ideas, knowledge and research to inform their practice and create debate and dialogue amongst teaching teams.

The environments in which young children learn need to provide multiple opportunities and experiences. Early childhood centres should be designed and resourced to foster curiosity, exploration, risk-taking and life-sustaining practices.

Valuing children’s learning means providing environments that replicate the local environment as closely as possible. There should not be a significant mismatch between what children see, feel, hear and touch in their wider lives and the physical environment of the early childhood centre.

The integral place of families as central to children’s learning must also be celebrated and included through genuine relationships so whānau can say of the early childhood setting ‘this is our place’.

If we truly believe that laying sound foundations for children to be inspired to learn for life must begin in early childhood then there should be no question about the resourcing and provision for experiences and opportunities that embrace and celebrate the unparalleled complexity of young children’s learning.

By Jeanette Clarkin-Phillips
Senior Lecturer
Faculty Of Education
The University of Waikato

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