Sean Slade

Improving Schools: “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”

Many have written and spoken about the key lessons taught in kindergarten and during preschool years. There are articles, lists, hints, and videos, with much of it coming from Robert Fulghum's book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a collection of essays on the subject.

What do these lists, articles, and books say? That we should share, look both ways, wash hands, play fair, say sorry, clean up after ourselves, no hitting, put things back where you found them, hold hands, don't take things that aren't yours, flush, warm cookies and milk are good for you, take a nap, live a balanced life, dance and sing, draw and paint, play every day, look around you, wonder, dream, ask why, find a buddy, and on and on.

Yet the same phrase could be twisted to read "everything we need to know about educating we can learn from kindergarten." With that in mind, what are the key elements of effective learning and teaching in a kindergarten classroom (or at least the way that kindergarten was intended to be)?

A kindergarten ... is a preschool educational institution for children. The term was created by Friedrich Fröbel for the play and activity institute that he created in 1837 in Bad Blankenburg as a social experience for children for their transition from home to school. His goal was that children should be taken care of and nourished in "children's gardens" like plants in a garden. (Source: Wikipedia)

Children are playing and working; children have access to various activities throughout the day; teachers work with individual children, small groups, and the whole group at different times during the day; the classroom is decorated with children's original artwork, their own writing with invented spelling, and dictated stories; children learn numbers and the alphabet in the context of their everyday experiences; children work on projects and have long periods of time to play and explore; children have an opportunity to play outside every day that weather permits; teachers read books to children throughout the day, not just at group story time; curriculum is adapted for those who are ahead as well as those who need additional help; children and their parents look forward to school; parents feel safe sending their child to kindergarten; children are happy; they are not crying or regularly sick. (Source: National Association for the Education of Young Children [PDF])

Replace the word "child" with "student" and "kindergarten" for "school" and it reads as progressive, effective education.

I'm not the first to raise the idea, but maybe the way we teach (and learn) in the early years are the most effective way to learn. While there has been debate recently on whether or not humans are hardwired to learn by exploration, there appears to be little doubt that we learn most effectively by experiencing multiple stimulations: by doing, by manipulating, by hearing, by reading, and by discussing. As author and brain researcher Judy Willis puts it, "The more ways something is learned, the more memory pathways are built." She continues

In the classroom, the more ways the material to be learned is introduced to the brain and reviewed, the more dendritic pathways of access will be created. There will be more synaptic cell-to-cell bridges, and these pathways will be used more often, become stronger, and remain safe from pruning.

Effective preschool and kindergarten classes take a holistic, personalized, whole child approach to education. They ensure that their students are healthy and safe, not only physically, but also socially, emotionally, and mentally. They seek to have their classes engaged in a range of varying, hands-on activities in which content is linked back to their world and their interests. They are supported by qualified, professionals who cater to the varying needs of each child, and they are able to extend and challenge student growth and learning through adapted activities.

Sean Slade is director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD. The Whole Child Initiative is part of a broad, multiyear plan to shift public dialogue about education from an academic focus to a whole child approach that encompasses all factors required for successful student outcomes, enhancing learning by addressing each student's social, emotional, physical, and academic needs through the shared contributions of schools, families, communities, and policymakers.

During his more than two decades in education, Slade has written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being (PDF) and has been at the forefront of promoting and using school climate, connectedness, resilience, and youth development data for school improvement. He has been a teacher, head of department, education researcher, senior education officer, project manager, and director. He has taught, trained, and directed education initiatives in Australia, Italy, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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