Most early childhood education centers do an adequate job of providing an outdoor play space. That said, these environments are not ideal learning environments. This is somewhat strange because teacher generally learning during their education process the basic principle of how children learn but then don’t fully put this knowledge into practice when developing their outdoor play space. If they did, what would that look like?
Until the ‘70s was the consensus of childhood researchers like Piaget was that children’s brains were “tabula rasa”, a blank slate. Ten years ago, Alison Gopnik and her colleagues Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl published The Scientist in the Crib – Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn. The main thesis of the book is that children are born with very powerful brains and do a lot of thinking. They are like scientists who are constantly creating predictions about their world and how it works and refining those predictions based on experience. Her analogy was that they are like a computer with tremendous computational power and loaded with sophisticated programs but until a person sits down and enters information, they are not functional. Another way of saying this is that kids are born with complex templates and these are adapted and filled in as the child gains experience. For example, from the moment of birth children are listening for words and they learn the specific language that they are born into, they have a template for language which they fill with the local dialect.
Another point that is brought out in the book, which I don’t think has gotten enough attention, is that for the most part learning is promoted by two key components, action, and social engagement. Babies give rapped attention first to the parents, and as they mature, to other people they encounter. They are also moving almost constantly when they are awake. It is through motion in a social context that the child’s intrinsic templates get adapted to their environment, i.e., this active play is the optimal condition for learning.
In the decade following the publication of The Scientist in the Crib researchers have been able to actually peer inside children’s brains and can now verify that the book’s contentions are correct. They can see the parts of the brain that light up in response to specific stimuli. They have shown that for the first two years children are primarily learning how to operate their bodies. The term we often hear used for this process is sensory integration. The main player in this process is the cerebellum. The interesting finding has been that the cerebellum had been thought to be essentially a movement computer like the self-driving computer in a Tesla. It turns out that the cerebellum is constantly creating a model of the whole world of the child and anticipating what will happen next. It then adjusts this model based on the accuracy of those predictions. To do this it talks to the right cerebral cortex to assess how best to make adaptations, i.e. the right cortex is the diver in this analogy. So, far from just learning how to move, for the first seven years, the cerebellum and its partner the right cortex are the main areas of learning about everything in the child’s world including emotions.
Let’s make a list of what the current research has established the ideal learning environment for children from 2 to 7 years of age:
- There are other players in the setting, preferably with a mix of ages
- The space allows for lots of movement, especially large gross motor activities
- Children in the space are able to experiment, test limits and to fail often
- Children will have essentially unlimited ability to change the elements within the space
- The elements in the space have more than one function, preferably they can be used in many ways
- The optimum learning space will be primarily outdoors
- The space promotes immersive and emergent learning that is indicated by very long play episodes
While still rare, there are schools that embody all seven of these criteria. For example, AnjiPlay schools in China, the increasingly popular “Forest” schools, and many Reggio Emilia schools.
It is fair to say that than most schools in the USA fail at providing the ideal learning environment. There are many reasons for this, the push for academics, the need to provide a “safe” environment, the lack of teacher training for operating in such a learning space, and parent expectations of what a “proper” school should look like and teach.
The fact is that for the majority of programs being able to have an ideal learning environment is hampered by the lack of well-designed equipment. Indeed Cheng Xueqin, the Director of the Office of Pre-Primary Education had to invent from scratch the apparatus they use in her program. Most other schools that meet these criteria have access to naturalistic spaces and hand-make whatever else they feel they need to support the children’s learning.
It is no wonder that few schools can implement an ideal learning environment. For example, one need only look at what outdoor equipment is currently available for early childhood educators to see that large motor apparatus is invariably fixed in place, has a single function and cannot be changed by the children.
In my next blog, I will explore ideas that can offer new options for creating the ideal learning environment.
In the meantime check out this great article by our friend Peter Grey – Children Educate Themselves