Early Childhood Education: Creating a Community of Problem Solvers

As we increasingly stress the importance of academics to young children; parents and teachers must question their true goals.  Do we simply wish that our children to know all their “A-B-C’s” and “1-2-3’s” by the time they are four years old? Isn’t our true goal not to lead children but rather to help them attain their own problem-solving skills?  As parents and educators, isn’t one of our main priorities to foster childrens’ passion for learning, and to encourage them to ask “why”? 

Early childhood educators believe that their job is to offer children the opportunity to grow and succeed. Additionally, we know that children learn best by doing. Years of rote memorization and skills testing are becoming less and less important.  As instructors or caregivers, we need to be providing children the chance to ask questions; rather than giving our students answers. We need to offer them the tools to discover solutions on their own. 

I still own a set of 1976 World Book Encyclopedias. To my parents, these books were the greatest gift they could offer.  As a young teacher, I asked my mom if I could take the encyclopedias to my classroom.  She was very reluctant and wanted to know how I proposed to use these big, old, fancy books with my three-to-five year-old students.  My response was: let them explore and learn. She was confused; how could a three year-old, one that couldn’t truly read, she asked, benefit from an encyclopedia—especially one that might not be up-to-date?

These encyclopedias—which used to be my prized possessions—were destined for a recycling plant, or worse, a garbage dump.  The information within was considered useless because some details have changed, and new discoveries have been made.  However, I told my mother, in the “B” book there is a whole section on butterflies with beautiful, lush pictures; there is information about body parts, breeds, geographic locations, and references to folktales or fables that feature butterflies.   For a child interested in butterflies, the 1976 “B” encyclopedia book actually possesses a wealth of information. 

As parents and teachers, we need to remind ourselves that the natural learning that takes place while children browse through book pages is priceless.  Better, in books like encyclopedias, there are not clearly outlined or delineated sections; everything—from social studies to anatomy, anthropology to math—is incorporated into a single entry in one book. 

Thus, from this one entry in this one book, other areas of interest can develop.  A child that wants to know about butterflies may need to learn how to spell the word.  They may realize how butterflies, as insects, are different from mammals and reptiles.  They may start thinking about the world as a whole, and where different butterflies are located.  They may start asking questions like: why are butterflies different colors? Or, they may wonder how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. As a teacher, it is essential to think on-the-ground, as a child would; we must take these general observations and turn them into new learning opportunities.

More, as a teacher, be sure to supplement your classroom with materials to further engage your students’ thinking. Offer children ways to continue exploring their interests.  Remember, children learn best by doing, so rather than leaving great resources like encyclopedias to collect dust, let your students use them.  Let children ask the questions about subjects they are interested in, and offer ways to help them make their own discoveries. 

Now, a final test: if a child asks “how does a caterpillar become a butterfly?” what will you say? Instead of “by making a cocoon,” will you have the resources available to reply: “great question, what do you think?  Where can we find the answer?”