Materials, nature provide an alternative classroom for young kids
Variety makes all the difference when it comes to classrooms and curriculums
Carbon-copy playgrounds; cramped classrooms; "car park" school grounds. Across the industrialised world, these are the environments in which many young children are expected to play and learn; zoo enclosures can look more enriched.
Studies are emerging that reveal poor design as a hindrance to learning in the very young, as damaging as militaristic drills. Meanwhile, frogspawn and starry skies - once the recruiting agents of science - are beyond many children's experience.
The nexus of young child and physical world is a supercharged space, where burning potential meets a chunk of the new. Developmental neuroscientist Alison Gopnik has described young children's lamp-like awareness of the world and the 360-degree intensity of their absorption. Babies' brains grow at an amazing rate, making 700 new neural connections a second. By the age of three, a child has one quadrillion synapses, up to four times the number in an adult brain; these are later pruned.
While this neural crescendo builds, the infant and toddler is exploring the world holistically, with hands, feet and body, as well as eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Sensorimotor, materials-based learning was the bedrock of our evolution, and it shapes the brain.
In his 1973 book The Ascent of Man, mathematician and biologist Jacob Bronowski wrote: "The hand is the cutting edge of the mind."
Gopnik says it is people and things - sand, water, a bean plant, sociable family members - that satisfy the infant scientist's experimental urge.
That young children learn how the physical world and people work so tangibly - literally getting to grips with things - neutralises the idea that intensive academic settings are needed to set children under six on a course to becoming tomorrow's synthetic biologists and solar engineers. That, cognitive scientist Guy Claxton argues, reduces learning to listening and reading, talking and writing.
E-media is often viewed as a corrective for such reductionism. But with many babies and toddlers now habitual users of the virtual world - some nursery classrooms even have giant digital whiteboards - electronic gadgetry is hotly debated in the early-learning context. Whatever the final verdict, it is clear that virtual experience alone fails to engage the whole child: screen-time limits children to what Claxton calls "eye-brain-finger" learning. It can also intrude on "face time" and the socialisation and language learning that are central to early child development. (Reportedly, prominent technocrats such as Twitter founder Evan Williams strictly limit their own children's use of electronic devices.)
Old-school alternatives to reductionism have a long pedigree. Modern findings on the importance of physicality and social contact for the very young echo the views of pedagogical innovators and reformers from the early 20th century. One of Italy's first female physicians, Maria Montessori (1870-1952) - who observed that cognition is closely tied to movement, and learning to autonomy - emphasised play- and materials-based education. Montessori classrooms have been compared to university labs, where children direct their own work at their own pace, with materials designed for multifaceted experimentation. Three-year-olds, for example, might handle and sort wooden cylinders of various sizes, and, in the process, learn the pincer grip needed to manipulate fine instruments, as well as skills such as reasoning and comparing, and the basics of maths.
A similar philosophy permeates other systems shown to boost early language use, and to strengthen reflection and self-monitoring. Finland focuses education for children up to age seven on play-based physical and social learning - and the country's 15-year-olds rank first in Europe in science and reading in surveys by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment.
Even more radical is the forest school, rooted in the "outdoor nursery" model of reformer Margaret McMillan (1860-1931) and others, and spreading from Britain to the US and Scandinavia between the 1910s and the '90s. A "classroom" might be a woodland clearing; "lessons", fire-building or insect identification; methodology, supervised risk-taking and close observation.
Education outdoors has inspired biologists from Charles Darwin to E.O. Wilson, and the curriculum carries a range of benefits. A study of British forest schools, commissioned by the Forestry Commission, found improvements in children's confidence, concentration, fine motor control and teamwork. Forest schools also offer tangible evidence of abstract phenomena such as life cycles, food chains and changes in materials (such as why wood blackens in a fire).
Nature is unsurpassed as a teaching environment, argues social ecologist Stephen Kellert. A meadow or seashore engages the whole child physically, socially, cognitively and emotionally. Through the drama of rain, wind, birds flying, mud squelching and leaves falling, nature sparks curiosity even as it provides an arena for free play - both gripping detail and far horizons.
But with the wild giving way to traffic-ridden tarmac, safe places for play (and outdoor learning) become ever more important as refuges and testing grounds for children. Quality play that stretches a child's senses, intellect, sociality, physicality and motor skills (both gross and fine) demands spaces designed to accommodate children's needs and behaviour, notes renowned play-space designer Gunter Beltzig.
As educational theorists, teachers, government officials and parents tussle endlessly over literacy, numeracy and testing in children aged eight and under, we sometimes forget that nature nurtures. We ascended as a species through incandescent curiosity - that hallmark of scientists in every century - at play in the world. Those primal, physical realities still have everything to teach us, in one way or another.
The Washington Post