My wife and I have begun the search for our son’s first preschool, which means a steady stream of weekday open houses, packs of adults warily sizing each other up, and crowded tours through classrooms of tiny people. It’s an anxiety-producing process, especially since, in DC at least, the most desirable preschools all attract far more applications than they can accept. It’s also a revealing process in terms of what we value most, and least, for our children based on how old they are.
At one such open house, yesterday morning, the school’s director led a packed room of adults through an introduction to the school’s philosophy and approach to learning. Not surprisingly, he was unapologetically progressive in his approach. “Our goal,” he explained, “is to encourage all aspects of a child’s development – social, emotional, physical, and cognitive – in a setting that is safe, warm, and cheerful. At this school, your child’s teachers will help him or her develop positive self-concepts and understand others from different cultural and economic backgrounds.”
I looked around the room to see my fellow audience members nod approvingly, even though most had probably never before heard of constructivism — or the idea that people learn best when they are actively involved in constructing meaning from their interactions with their surroundings. Then I wondered, as I have before, why so many of us who are well-intentioned parents seem to universally understand the value of a school tending to their child’s fullest capacities for learning and growth when they are little — and then tolerate the subtle shift to an almost-sole focus on academic achievement when they reach a certain age.
None of us reach some magical point when our full development — social, emotional, physical, and cognitive — stops being essential. Human beings will always require environments that tend to all of these needs simultaneously, whether we’re 6 or 60. Yet our secondary school systems, and the policies in place to incentivize behavior in those systems, actively discourage educators from creating the sorts of environments we heard about at yesterday’s open house. That is the height of insanity, and misalignment, and there is no greater challenge in our field than reestablishing that the things we provide our littlest students — engaging and eclectic physical spaces, frequent one-on-one adult interaction, self-guided learning mixed with structured leadership from skilled adults, recess, and a balanced curriculum that values music and art as much as it does science or math — are the very things to help re-engage our biggest students in the learning process, and in their own path of self-discovery, learning and growth.