Push Back on the Push Down
America's young children are increasingly enrolled in early care and education settings—more than 1.3 million children (28 percent) attended state-funded preschool at age 4 in 2011–121. Accordingly, the field of early childhood has become keenly aware of the importance of high-quality early childhood care and education that aims to promote children's cognitive, linguistic, creative, emotional, social, and physical development. At the same time, school readiness is a hotly debated topic with long-reaching effects on the experiences that children have in early childhood settings. The reality is that some children arrive at elementary school with the foundation to learn to read and engage in mathematics already in place, while others have yet to build a foundation for readiness. Initial readiness differences are powerful predictors for later school achievement, economic productivity, and health2.
It is important to understand that the majority of early readiness indicators narrowly assess a child's emerging capacity for literacy and mathematics' learning, to the exclusion of other subject content areas and social-emotional readiness. This preferential emphasis on literacy and mathematics in early childhood education is compounded by the "push-down" academic climate3 experienced in early childhood classrooms. Young children in today's classrooms are pushed to learn more material at a faster pace than ever before. As such, experiences that build young children's creative and inquiry skills are an infrequent part of many children's daily lives. For those teachers committed to educating the needs of the whole child, promoting creative-learning experiences poses pedagogical challenges as they struggle to find balance between the development of content knowledge, child-centered learning experiences, and active and play-based learning.
Sadly, the topic of what education and learning truly mean for our youngest children often gets lost in school-readiness debate and the push-down curricula mandates. During early childhood, young children are not just building a foundation for later learning, they are learning and experiencing their world in the present moment. Therefore, the experiences of the present moment must serve to inspire children to question, explore, and wonder. Early achievement and diagnostic testing provides just a snapshot of a child's knowledge at a given point in time. It is important to keep in mind that a child's test score is not a direct connection to who they are or who they will become as a learner.
Decades of research on the economic outcomes of early childhood education programs indicate that a high-quality early education can help to ameliorate effects of poverty and other risk factors, while better preparing children for later school experiences. High-quality early childhood education is one of the most effective means to closing the opportunity and achievement gap for young learners. However, if we want to ensure that our children have rich, engaging early learning experiences, we, as educators, parents, and administrators, must promote and value a robust curriculum for young children. A high-quality early education is capable of much more than can be measured by a test score; early childhood experiences that build upon a child's interests and sense of wonder will also serve to inspire children to better understand themselves as learners and promote deeper understandings of their world.
1 Barnett, W.S., Carolan, M.E., Fitzgerald, J., & Squires, J.H. (2012). The state of preschool 2012: State preschool yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research.
2 Knudsen, E. I., Heckman, J. J., Cameron, J. L., & Shonkoff, J. P. (2006). Economic, neurobiological, and behavioral perspectives on building America's future workforce. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(27), 10155–10162.
3 Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8 (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Angela Eckhoff is an assistant professor of teaching and learning in the Early Childhood Education program at Old Dominion University. She is also the codirector of the Virginia Early Childhood Policy Center at Old Dominion University. She holds a dual PhD from the University of Colorado-Boulder in Educational Psychology and Cognitive Science. Her areas of specialization include visual arts pedagogy in early childhood education, imagination, and creative development during childhood, and informal learning environments for children and families. Eckhoff also serves on the Early Childhood Art Educators committee for whole child partner organization National Art Education Association.