Active, Engaged, Meaningful Learning

Children in the developmental stage of early childhood (ages 3 through 8) are concrete learners. They are exceptionally sensory, which means that they learn best by touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, and moving their bodies. Children in this age range are active learners. They are interested in experiments, trial and error, representing what they are learning through construction and play, and finding answers in picture books. They like to find things out on their own. As they gradually become more focused on other people and the outside world, children become aware that there are many adult skills that they do not have. In environments where they are encouraged to try out these skills (such as writing) at their own appropriate level, they enthusiastically embrace learning.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget talked about children in the early years "constructing" their own meaning. He believed that children learn most efficiently when they are able to take new knowledge and integrate it into their previous knowledge and experiences, constructing a new knowledge base each day. Because children are constantly rethinking and updating their construction of how the world works, Piaget recommended learning experiences that emphasize autonomy and self-direction as a sound preparation for later intellectual development. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who developed the Montessori school concept, also talked about the importance of sensorimotor experiences. She designed learning materials and manipulatives that use concrete and real materials to capitalize on the child's learning style.

An effective early childhood program enables children to learn in ways that they learn best. It provides opportunities for them to observe, explore, and build. Verbalization with other children and adults is encouraged. Learning experiences encourage the development of the whole child: cognitive or intellectual, social, emotional, physical, aesthetic, and psychomotor.

Young children within this age range develop at different rates. To enable children to construct their own knowledge, each child must have opportunities for learning experiences that match his or her level of development. Open-ended learning activities--such as block building, constructing play environments, drawing, and writing stories and books about their interests--capitalize on the way young child learn best.

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