Research in child development and early childhood education shows that young children have unique learning styles that match their stages of development – physical, emotional, social, language, and cognitive. Research also shows that children form their values in their earliest years.
Young children are active learners. They learn best with hands-on interactive play and discovery rather than the more formal rote method of imparting knowledge. They have a natural curiosity. For learning to be effective, children should be engaged in hands-on experiences based on their developmental abilities - in other words, play experiences that are open-ended and child-initiated, with opportunities for concept expansion with a teacher’s guidance.
Early education today lays an important foundation for future learning. The majority of early education environments are set up in what is referred to as play centers: block, art, dramatic play, sand/water, literacy, manipulative, and nature/science . Under the umbrella of play, many foundational skills are developed.
When children work in the block area, they are learning about sizes and shapes, weights and balances, height and depth, smoothness, roughness, and volume. They learn to communicate ideas through language when discussing similarities and differences, and they learn to solve problems and make decisions.
When children work in the art area, they are more concerned with the process than the finished product. This is as it should be in early education. They learn to use imagination and transfer ideas to paper; this increases language ability by talking about their creation. They learn how to use materials like scissors, paste, tape and staples. They learn how to use their imagination to make the kind of creation in mind; once again the process, not the finished product is important.
When children work in the dramatic play area, they understand what it feels like to play at being someone else. They lean to cooperate with other children, imitating and describing sounds from the environment.
When children work in the sand/water area, they have an opportunity to play alone and not have to compete with other children as they do with other activities. This is especially important to children who have trouble getting along with friends. They actively explore the attributes and functions of materials with all the senses and develop vocabulary words such as “empty” and “full.”
When children work in the literacy area, they have an opportunity to increase vocabulary by hearing new words. They begin telling stories from pictures and books, in an orderly sequence. They develop book awareness concepts such as following pictures and printing from left to right and top to bottom.
Children who work in the manipulative areas (math, tabletop toys) have an opportunity to improve eye-hand coordination. They develop an awareness of symmetry in their own representations. They compare and sort objects into groups, recognize and create patterns, and compare numbers and amounts.
When children play in the science/nature area, they develop concepts and vocabulary related to size, weight, measurement and classification. They develop scientific procedures of observing, inferring, classifying and documenting. They use their senses, questioning, problem-solving, sorting, ordering and discovering relationships.
The care children receive in these early foundational years sets the stage for their future educational process. Research shows that children enrolled in high-quality learning environments experience greater success in school, college and as adults. Early education is a child’s first step to success.