Early Childhood Education: The Process, not the Project

Over the past 10 years we have supported primary school teachers to finally let go of term based topics and projects about the "sun, the moon, the planets, the gold rush"!  In this process we have provided the pedagogy to replace "topics" with authentic personalised learning that starts with intentions for the development of skills and learning alongside a wider range of children's interests and concepts.

The great irony now is the emergence of preschool and early childhood teachers talking about 3 and 4 year olds having "topics" and "projects" about the planets and sustainably and penguins and butterflies!

  • What has happened to that wonderful early childhood adage of the "process rather than the end product"?
  • What is driving this latest perspective in some quarters of early childhood planning that starts with a project mentality about "things", objects and concepts such as science, butterflies, Antarctica?
  • How can early childhood educators make the assumption that 3 year old children will have the cognitive intellectual understandings and actual inclination to "find out" about how, what and where these things actually are and work? Young children don't even understand what their suburb is or the suburb next door let alone a nearby planet!! One even wonders that even if they did, is it necessary for young children aged 3 to be introduced to the complexities of world sustainability issues and challenges!!

The invasion of "project mentality" in early childhood education defies brain development and intellectual conceptualization of children and is in opposition to developmentally appropriate practice.

Assuming that projects, even if they have supposedly "emerged" from a child's interest are something that children wish to continue to explore and find out about day after day, is making an assumption that children think and sustain interest in the same way that adults do. This is not correct. The reality is that young children are not mini adults and they do not make sense of their world through long, adult driven, adult agenda laden projects and pre-determined topics!

There is an urgent need for professional reflection about the purpose of early childhood education (in the years before school): it requires an honest reflection about whose agenda it is that turns early childhood exploration (with intentional teaching and play based learning) into a need for long term projects that are most usually instigated, driven and sustained by the adult - not the child!!!

The emergence of teaching children using projects is one of a variety of misguided practices occurring in early childhood education.  Another significant misguided practice is that early childhood educators no longer need to plan with intention about skills and learning - instead all they have to do is simply use children's interests.

Disturbingly, across Australia we continually witness the following type of planning and practice from early childhood practitioners.

"If a child is interested in butterflies, we set up activities about "butterflies" - this is using the emergent curriculum! We therefore have followed the interest of a child, we turn it into an ongoing project, we then label it linked to references cut and pasted from the new framework with words such as, "this helps children learn about their community and builds respect for their environment", it is then put into a learning story that tells us nothing except that we all had a very enjoyable time, it is then transposed into a portfolio!"

There is no information about skills, understandings, learning, literacy, language or what we will do to extend, scaffold or build upon learning!! Most perplexing is that these educators then assume that they have done, recorded and documented everything that is now required!

True emergent curriculum is when children's interests, culture and context are used as a catalyst and foundation to provide and embed and thread throughout the environment a rich range of open ended play based rich and wonderful learning centers and experiences that children can investigate and explore without having to produce either an ongoing project, or some high level understanding about but rather the enjoyment, skill practice, experience of constructing, exploring and discovering.

Somewhere, somehow, either in recent academic trends and agendas or elsewhere, a significant shift has occurred away from allowing children to engage in rich, open-ended play based learning where active exploration, skill and conceptual understandings occur.  Intentional and proactive planning must occur where the child's interests are of course included but not as the dominant and only element of planning, but as one part of a range of clinical, educational, and skill based intentions that are determined by university educated practitioners.

If we are only using children's interests as a basis for planning and setting up experiences, we may perhaps refer to our profession as nothing more than enthusiastic baby sitters.

Early Childhood professionals must be able to describe and analyze elements of development, skill, behaviors and learning to parents on a range of issues and decisions that parents need to make for their children. It is important to remember that all research highlights the realities of the importance of early intervention in the preschool years for children who may have identified any elements of learning, development or health that may require some support early in their life. Without clinical and well documented records, with professionals embracing record keeping about learning and development, not just narratives about experiences, some of these early records of children's skills, development and learning are at risk of being missed.

If the only words and terms that ECE can now utter or write is a cut and past of outcomes such as "developing a sense of identity, developing a sense of community" then something is seriously wrong.

Sadly this is what we are witnessing continually across the country.

Early childhood professional educators are EDUCATORS and as such, planning and teaching must be intentional, personalised, open-ended, well scaffolded, and empower children to investigate their world in an ongoing process not inhibited or narrowed by "projects".