The Tools for Learning
The curriculum of Wimpfheimer Nursery School is formulated in part with respect to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) guidelines for developmentally appropriate practices. Vassar College provides financial support for the teaching staff to attend professional local, state and national conferences.
In addition, the classroom curriculum is also driven by the application of state-of-the-art knowledge in developmental psychology, early childhood education and related fields. Central to contemporary research is a focus on the rich capacities of young children to learn about the world. In the past decade, scientists and educators have made tremendous advances in understanding what contributes to optimal learning for children. While we have known that children from infancy through adolescence need to "learn by doing", the significance of these hands-on experiences were not fully realized. Now, scientists have demonstrated that children's experiences in the world literally wire their brains. By engaging in stimulating, age-appropriate activities, children make brain connections that they will use for a lifetime.
At the heart of the curriculum, we strive to provide the children with the tools for learning. In general, the classrooms are structured around themes, providing the children with many examples and avenues to understanding a given topic. Sometimes these topics are generated by the children's interests or observations; other times the teachers introduce a new idea to the children. With the introduction of a topic, the goal becomes two-fold: 1) to explore and integrate the topic through as many mediums as possible (e.g. literature, the arts, math, science, dramatic play, model building) and 2) to encourage the children to discover avenues of learning. When a child asks a question, it is not our usual inclination to give him or her the answer; rather, we encourage the child to figure out how to get the answer. We help the children to identify what they already know, prompt them to make hypotheses about how the world works, and give them the tools to test and evaluate those predictions. For example, is the child raising a question or identifying a problem that they've encountered before? If so, we may encourage them to solve the problem by drawing an analogy to the previous situation. Is the child asking for factual information? If so, we may take a walk downstairs to the library to find a book with that information or perhaps use a search engine on the Internet. Does the child have an idea they want to try? If so, we may work on drawing a plan, developing a list of materials, identifying a proper place to work, asking for other people to assist, and estimating the time required to complete the project. These are a few examples of how we strive to put the power and resources for learning in the hands of the child.
The Research Gem
While the curriculum embodies the application of contemporary theory and research in the early childhood classroom, Wimpfheimer also contributes to furthering that body of knowledge through research and training. Children may participate in each research project with the separate written consent of their parents. Most research projects take place in the Children's Library. Some take place in the rooms directly adjacent to the classrooms. Parents are invited to watch their child participate in a project by making arrangements with the principle researcher. Detailed guidelines for research practices are provided to each family at the beginning of the school year.
Most children thoroughly enjoy this one-on-one time with an adult doing unique activities. The research projects are interesting, fun and often challenge the children to think about something in a new way. Upon completion of the project, faculty members send out letters describing the findings of the study. Published papers or presentations resulting from these studies are displayed at the nursery school. Much of the research conducted in the nursery school this year is likely to influence our educational practices in the classroom in the next five years. It is a valuable resource for our children now, and for the broader educational and early childhood community in the future.
Most classrooms at Wimpfheimer Nursery School are composed of children from more than one age group. (The 2's/3's room does not use mixed-age groupings due to the smaller scale of the physical environment, which would be inappropriate for older children.) The philosophy behind mixed-age grouping is multifaceted. Historically, children in our society have been raised in mixed-age group settings: the family and the neighborhood. With increasing numbers of children in childcare, exposure to mixed-age grouping is declining. This is unfortunate, given the potential benefits to both the younger and older children.
From an academic perspective, older children can create more complex play for younger children. This may set up cognitive challenges for the younger children, requiring problem solving and exploration of new approaches to solutions. The older children have the opportunity to become "experts" and "teachers", reinforcing their own knowledge and encouraging new approaches to that knowledge by seeing it through the eyes of the younger "novice".
From a social development perspective, positive self-esteem and pro-social behaviors are enhanced. Older children can practice leadership skills and cooperative problem solving strategies, sometimes more easily than with same-age peers. Younger children receive individual attention, acceptance and care. Given the opportunity, friendships often transcend age groups.
From a curriculum perspective, mixed-age groupings encourage teachers to focus on individual strengths and weaknesses, lessening the tendency to teach to the "average" group ability. It is easier to allow for uneven development within an individual and to resist temptation to teach to standardized age norms. Mixed-age groupings are most successful in programs such as ours, which place a premium on in-depth learning as compared to the accumulation of compartmentalized sets of academic skills.
Children's development is often described as four stages of growth: cognitive, social, emotional and physical. While it is useful to identify strengths and weaknesses in each area as part of meeting an individual's needs, it is equally important to consider the interrelationships for the individual as a whole. In reality, the child's functioning in the world is the result of the constant interplay of these processes and abilities.
The curriculum, environment and approaches to teaching at Wimpfheimer reflect the importance of an integrated development philosophy. In order for young children to explore the physical world, they need to be secure and competent in their social interactions with peers and adults. Likewise, increasing cognitive competence fosters self-esteem and more complex social interactions.
One example of this is reflected in our approach to discipline. Three elements comprise our philosophy on discipline: setting clear and consistent limits; stating the desired behavior in positive terms, including an explanation for our reasoning (i.e. "You need to put the sand down in the sandbox. Throwing sand hurts when it gets in someone's eyes."); and promoting problem-solving strategies among the children. The latter, also referred to as conflict resolution, is easily illustrated by considering a dispute over a toy. Instead of the adult dictating the solution, the adult acts as the mediator, helping each child to understand the other's point of view and encouraging the children to negotiate their own solution. Younger children need suggestions by the teacher at nearly every point in the verbal exchange. Older children who have mastered the technique often need minimal or no support from an adult. Solutions created by the children are solutions more likely to be respected by the children. Thus, increasingly complex cognitive and linguistic skills foster better interactions in the social world; likewise, social interactions offer abundant opportunities for young children to practice cognitive and linguistic skills. Success in both areas promotes healthy emotional development.