Childrens Learning in the Early Years

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Play is a child's world. It is an avenue where one can be free to be oneself without anyone imposing rules or restrictions to conform to society's standards. Play offers many benefits that foster children's learning. It engages the mind to actively imagine various scenarios for fun or for problem-solving. Babies and toddlers play in order to get to know their world - how things work, how people react, etc. They get to explore and discover things that otherwise they will not learn about if they do not actively engage in play. This free exploration is considered Heuristic play by Holland (2003) and encourages it without adult intervention. Adults provide simple materials and allow the child's imagination to take off. "The child learns from observing directly what these objects will 'do' or 'not do', in sharp contrast to much of the 'educational' equipment which has a result predetermined by the design which has been devised by the adult maker (Holland, 2003, p. 142). Not only will heuristic play stimulate a child's thinking, but it also develops his creativity as he will see in his mind endless possibilities in imaginatively transforming ordinary objects into various things with various functions.

Young children learn better in play- like settings because they retain concepts better when learned in the spirit of fun. Macintyre (2003) discusses the value of play in all the developmental areas of children. Children love games that stimulate thinking. Such cognitive benefits extend to their real lives as they make decisions, compare and contrast things, use their imaginations and thinking critically and creatively.

Play also engages the body. Certain games involve gross and fine motor coordination. Running around, jumping, tumbling and other physical activities help them be physically fit as well as release tension. Much practice in physical play develops their muscles, agility, flexibility and endurance.

Socially, play fosters the development of friendships, coaxing children out of their shells. As they play with other children or adults, they get to know about how other people behave, think and feel. They also get to learn socially acceptable behavior like not hurting others and playing fair. Most importantly, they get to know themselves better- how they react to certain situations in the play setting.

Play may also be an outlet for emotional release. Young children use role play or puppet play to process experiences they do not fully understand. Doing it over and over helps them realize what was wrong or right in confusing situations. Resolving issues in play may also be therapeutic for some children.

Linking Play to Literacy

Educators are now coming to understand that learner-centered strategies are more effective in engaging young children's learning since it puts much value in the young learners' construction of their own understanding of concepts. This makes learning more meaningful and relevant to them, hence, retention of concepts and skills is easier to achieve. Play is one approach to learning many concepts and skills. Reading and writing skills spring out of play-like story-reading sessions. These are examples of activities wherein children's imaginations are actively engaged, as it is in their play. Books and sharing stories are just a few of the learning materials and activities that enhance communication, language and literacy skills. These help concretize learning for very young children in the company of other learners who may contribute much to their shared learning.

Emergent literacy is the term used to refer to the earliest period of a child's literacy development, specifically the time between birth and when the child can read and write (Sulzby and Teale, 1991). According to emergent literacy theories, the child is the central figure in the construction of learning. His life experiences directly affect his literacy. One theoretical perspective in the area of emergent literacy is that children are innately predisposed to becoming literate especially if they live in a literary-rich environment - lots of books, pictures, films, software, educational posters, etc.

Piaget (1959) also has something to contribute to the theoretical perspective of literacy. According to him, literacy is actively constructed with a child's interaction with the environment. Such interaction brings about learning, as concepts are constructed or changed, usually, differing from adult concepts. Still another perspective has been inspired by Vygotsky (1962), as he theorizes that a child learns literacy through conversation and involvement in literacy acts with an adult. This interaction between adult and child is called 'scaffolding'. This occurs when a knowledgeable adult gently guides a child through successive literacy activities while relinquishing autonomy little by little to the child until such time he can do in on his own. In the persepectives of Piaget and Vygotsky, literacy is achieved when children are allowed to play, as there are several opportunities for interactions with their peers, other adults and the environment.

Reading and writing skills of very young children are encouraged and developed through constant exposure to books and the availability of writing materials. Their natural interest in books and stories need to be nurtured by caring practitioners who read to them often and let them manipulate the books and explore the possibilities of the stories.

Early Childhood Education (ECE

Brief History of ECE

As early as the sixteenth century, there were already individuals advocating for more experience-based learning. John Comenius (1592-1670), known as the "Father of Modern Education" recommended a holistic, integrated, hands-on curriculum and was the first to use pictures in textbooks. This introduction to an innovative approach, at that time, has caught on with other educators.

In the seventeenth century, Jean-Jacques Rosseau ( 1712-1778) began to focus on the learner's nature instead of the subject matter to be learned. He theorized that learning by discovery is much more effective than being merely "spoon-fed" information. He also empowered the learner by advising that the more a learner is able to control the environment, the more effective the education.

Rosseau believed that education should conform to the child's nature, and explained that people develop through various stages. Different forms of educational strategies should be adjusted to be appropriate to each developmental stage.

Among others, these prominent men in the history of Education have vast influence on constructivist theory. However, the men who were honored to be credited for its foundation are Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

The theories of Piaget and Vygotsky were based on their predecessors'. "Piaget believed that children create knowledge through interactions with the environment. Children are not passive receivers of knowledge; rather, they actively work at organizing their experience into more and more complex mental structures." (Brewer, 2001, p.6). He insists that children need to use all their cognitive functions. These theories were designed to form minds which can be critical, can verify, and not accept everything they are offered. Such beliefs reflect his respect for children's thinking.

Vygotsky (1978) believed that children's intellectual development is influenced more by social context than by individual experiences. His theory places a great deal of emphasis on effective social interaction. Interactions are likely to go through a process called intersubjectivity. This is when two people are engaged in a task and begin from different understandings but with interaction, comes to an agreed, shared understanding. This is usually manifested when children initially debate opposite arguments but upon more understanding of the concept because of listening to each other's opinions, will both end up seeing the concept in one direction.

ECE in Estonia, Poland & Georgia

Current Trends

Developmentally Appropriate Practice

Constructivism

Taken together, both Piaget's and Vygotsky's theories are known as Constructivist Teaching Practices and Principles where Piaget's emphasize Cognitive constructivism and Vygotsky's emphasize Social Constructivism. The integration of the ideas of Piaget and Vygotsky has proven to be an effective fusion.

Cognitive Constructivist Theories put much premium on knowledge from experiences and Social Constructivist theories point to the importance of teacher explanations, support and demonstrations. Cognitive Constructivists value the individual's questioning with open ended-questions and Social Constructivists encourage multiple viewpoints in understanding a problem. Cognitive Constructivists promote individual discoveries and Social Constructivists encourage students' collaboration in learning and social interaction. Cognitive Constructivists identify and foster skills needed to manage learning, and acknowledge collaborative learning as supportive in the increase of individual metacognitive skill. Social Constructivists create an atmosphere of joint responsibility for learning. (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998). In the foregoing, it can be understood that Piaget's theories complement with Vygotsky's.

III. Applying Modern Play-based and Story-based Early Childhood Education strategies in Estonia, Poland & Georgia.

Children's stories are valuable because they present so many benefits to a child's development. Storytelling activities merge oracy and literacy skill development. Otto (2010) discusses that effective storybook reading techniques involve three parts namely pre-reading, reading and post-reading. These stages are equally important in the appreciation of a story. Before reading a book, the teacher must be able to entice the children to listen to the story as she introduces the book. She should talk about the title of the book and encourage children to predict what the book conveys. During this time, the teacher establishes the need to listen with a purpose. While reading the story, the teacher should pause occasionally to ask comprehension questions to check if the children have understood the story so far. She may also involve the children in predicting upcoming events or commenting what has happened in the story so far. Upon finishing the story, the events are reviewed and the children may be engaged in making connections between the story and their life experiences. Follow up activities such as drawing scenes from the story or "writing" part of it in the child's own version will strengthen the concept that words are expressed in print too. Teachers may talk about letters by name and sounds while matching it to pictures. A literacy-rich environment filled with print and pictures would stimulate a child's interest in reading and writing. It is important for teachers to provide their students lots of opportunities for literacy-related play activities such as role-playing, bookmaking, filling out story charts, and experimentation with writing on their own. The teacher can help a child recognize how print works by demonstrating directionality and discussing the differences between the information obtained from the pictures in books and the printed words (Brewer, 2001).

Shared reading sessions are opportunities to expose children to the process of reading text. Fountas & Pinnell, (1996) lists several benefits of Shared reading. Among them are building previous experiences with books; providing language models; expanding vocabulary; laying a foundation for guided and independent reading. It also supports children who are on the verge of reading so that they can enjoy participating in reading whole stories. It provides an opportunity for the teacher to demonstrate phrased fluent reading and to draw attention to critical concepts about print, providing a context for learning specific words and features of words, and helping children become familiar with texts that they can use independently as resources for writing and reading. Shared reading provides readers a good support system. Readers can help each other as they read the text. They can work and read as a group or team to solve problems that they may encounter as they read the text. They can work on meaning of words that they cannot understand and even share their opinion with concepts found in the book. A lot of conversation may take place as they read and they can share their thoughts and experience. As in "read-alouds", the teacher draws the children into the story and begins conversations for children to become active participants.

Assessment

Assessment methods either fall under the more traditional approaches that expect students to regurgitate information previously fed to them or authentic assessment that traverse a wider range of academic disciplines and skills as well as assessment approaches that attempt to evaluate the "whole child" in a wide span of application of his knowledge and abilities (Darling-Hammond et al, 1993 b). Although the basic assumption behind traditional and authentic assessment is common, which is to develop prolific citizens, the former approach tests the students on the possession of certain knowledge while the latter tests the students on the application of knowledge (Mueller 2008).

Wiggins' (1991) description of what authentic assessment should be is that it involves "engaging problems and questions of importance and substance in which students must use knowledge (and construct meaning) effectively and creatively (p. 39). Thus, it involves the use of higher-order thinking which is far useful in the long run than mere knowledge of information which most traditional assessment methods measure. . Students can more readily appreciate authentic assessment methods, as these are more natural to their learning and hence it becomes more relevant in their lives.

Consistent with constructivist philosophy, authentic assessment entrusts the reins of learning to the students. They "are required to provide rigorous intellectual commitment and perseverance, and teachers must continually connect student's previous and current knowledge to the emerging curriculum. The relevance of curriculum to student interests therefore cannot be planned, because the learners' interests and experience cannot be assumed nor completely evaluated in advance" (Wescombe-Down, n.d., n.p). This gives the students more power in the acquisition of learning. Using prior knowledge, they are encouraged to invent their own solutions and try out their own ideas and hypotheses with the able support of their teachers. This way, they can indulge in concrete experiences that focus on their interests. The process of searching for information, analysing data and reaching conclusions is considered more important than learning facts.

In terms of implementation of such methods, students of any age or any educational level will benefit much from authentic approaches to assessment. The case studies of schools that implemented authentic assessment methods discussed in Darling-Hammond et al's (1995) works highlighted the use of different strategies for customizing instruction, deeply involving students with the subject matter and assessing the assessment support changes in the curriculum, teaching and school organization. The basic premise of the vision of authentic achievement as proposed by Newmann, Secada, and Wehlage (1995) outlines the creation of more interesting yet challenging assessment tools for students. Teachers can encourage students to produce more intellectual work in the form of real world applications, and hence increase their performance.

Methodology

Survey Questionnaire for Students in Estonia, Poland & Georgia

-about what they remember learning from play/ storybooks (give options/

space for open-ended questions

-about what they believe should be added to the ECE curriculum in their

countries (give options/ space for open-ended questions)

Focus Group Interview with Teachers from Estonia, Poland & Georgia

-about their perspectives and insights on use of play and storytelling in

ECE

-about ECE in their countries

-about their recommendations on how to improve ECE in their countries

III. Analysis of data is mostly qualitative. The only quantitative part will be the

percentages of the options in the questions.

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