Reflection: How do you know what to teach?

Curriculum is a hot topic right now. With the Common Core in serious discussions both for and against, increased standardized testing, and government basing funding on student performance it is understandably on many people's minds. 

Fortunately, as a home child care provider I am allotted a bit more freedom. This allows me to provide activities and learning opportunities that are interesting to the students and meet their individual developmental needs. 

I view Common Core, or State Frameworks, as a tool for setting goals. If used in this manner, each age group of children are learning sets of skills that are similar. This allows them to be regrouped as they age and be able to study the same material. In early child hood, children are learning how to learn. The actual content is irrelevant. Content (ABC's, numbers, shapes, animals, etc) is the medium that teachers use to teach the skills that will be needed when they begin primary school.

So, this begs the questions to be asked: How do you know what to teach?

When creating the curriculum for my center, I first considered the age group that would be attending. Most of my students are between 2-5 years old. This means they are moving, exploring, doing pretend play, and talking - a lot. They are not sitting for extended periods of time, sticking to a single topic for a lengthy amount of time, doing activities with complicated, multi-step directions, or doing many group projects.

To ensure that the children are exposed to a variety of materials, topics, and vocabulary I looked to the MA State Frameworks for preschool & kindergarten. I summarized topics for each set of standards (math, English language arts, science, social studies) and divided them into 12 parts, then paired those that seemed complimentary. This became the basic goals for each month throughout the year. I also added smaller topics, like letters, numbers, shapes, colors, authors, etc. This isn't to restrain myself, but a tool I use to ensure children are exposed to many learning opportunities.

Content is largely based on my observations of the children. There are very few guided tasks, unless I am teaching or evaluating a specific skill. For example, our space is currently being set up as a science lab. Part of being a scientist is using scientific method and using a journal. These are learned skills and must be taught explicitly. The topics of our studies are based on the children's interest

We are headed toward studying states of matter. Why? The snow melts when we bring it in the house, but it doesn't melt outside. Sometimes it melts outside. We can move the snow, and walk on it, and it stays in the shape we create. When it melts it splashes and our hands go into it. If we put paper or flour in the water it get all gooey, but if we use plastic or glass it stays the same. Also, we made oobleck on Dr. Seuss's birthday. It kind of looks like snow, but drips when we pick it up. All of this information is from play alongside the children.

When I say "play alongside the children" I mean that in all literal capacities. I wear sweatpants and cheap t-shirts almost everyday. Not because I'm a slob (mostly), but because I am on the floor, in the snow, in the puddles, and sensory table with the children.  Through these interactions, the children are exposed to vocabulary and skills that are modeled within context. They are then able to imitate and eventually generalize the skills across a variety of topics. 

Individual needs also play a large part in my planning and interactions. My students are young, developing quickly, and all at different levels of ability. Naturally, they all have varied strengths and weaknesses, as well. This means that we do mostly open ended play and when a structured activity, like circle time or creating science journals, is done there are different expectations for each child.

I also use a Developmental checklist to help me make sure that each child is reaching the appropriate milestones and I am creating an environment that helps them reach those goals.

One of my favorite tools is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It is a basic learning theory that is taught in many psychology classes. Basically, it is common sense. A person needs to have their physiological needs met, like food, water, health, toileting, and sleep, before they can move onto other goals. Safety needs are next on the hierarchy - again, common sense. The first few days, or weeks if needed, are spent ensuring the child has these needs met. Little to no learning is going to occur if a child is hungry, uncomfortable, or insecure. 

The next step up is all about the social aspect of human need. Feeling loved and feeling like you belong to a group helps you to be a better learner. When evaluating a child's needs, I begin at the bottom and work my way up. This is something done constantly. I call it "teacher brain" and if you have one, you know what I'm talking about. 

A large part of my curriculum is based on the 4th level: esteem needs. This deals with independence, achievement, confidence, and respect. I read a great article the other day about teaching respect to children. Surprise, surprise: children learn respect best by modeling! If you respect them and respect those around you, they will imitate your actions & words, thus respecting you and others. I do my best to do that by asking the children to share their ideas, speaking politely - again, I think common sense.

So - How do I know what to teach? I don't. At least, not until I spend time with the children and they tell me through their actions.