13
Thu, Jun
9 New Articles

Paradigm Shifts in Early Childhood Education

Rationale

When I first started working at my preschool in Seattle, I was transitioning from four years of outdoor environmental education (OEE) with middle school students. Although I had informal experience with toddlers, this was my first time working in a school setting. I had my tricks from the OEE field but needed to adapt and learn new methods for my younger students.

One of the first shifts I noticed was in the way my coworker spoke to the children: “I see you washing your hands.” “I see you trying to put on your pants.” “I see you using the green crayon.”

How simple! To validate a child’s existence by simply stating what you see, without judgment or opinion. I adopted this practice, using my words to state observations instead of offering praise or judgment. This simple act of acknowledgment can have a profound effect on children.

As I continued, I observed patterns in behavior. No one likes being told to do something they don’t want to do unless it involves a game or imagination play. So, clean-up time became a competition to see who could be the fastest “Earth Protector” picking up trash and toys. When thechildren’s behavior got a bit too energetic for the space, I redirected their actions into a game, such as throwing toys into a basket. Often, behavior is just communication—a need for physical movement, attention, or an outlet for emotions the kids can’t yet articulate.

I learned that young children can only handle a limited number of instructions at once. The formula given to us was “Do this then this” and “Do this, this, and then this.” I started breaking instructions into smaller, manageable chunks, saying, “When we listen, we have our voices off and touch our ears,” using scaffolding to build their skills incrementally.

In my OEE training with BEETLES (Better Environmental Education, Teaching, Learning, and Expertise Sharing), I learned the importance of asking the right kind of questions. I noticed my kids loved telling stories, whether true or not. Asking “How do you know that?” helped me understand their sources and avoid shutting them down with phrases like “That’s not true” or “That’s wrong.” This approach respects their experiences and builds their confidence.

PS1

And as I became a seasoned preschool teacher I often had to remind myself; these kids already knew what color the sky was, already knew what worms do, already knew that blackberry bushes had thorns. So instead of “Let me tell you about frogs,” I asked, “What do you know about frogs?” This shift kept my teaching more interactive and child-centered.

This approach led me to take my classroom outside. Luckily, our preschool was within a mile of a large public park. We began our day with a discussion: “What do you know about Bigfoot? Oh, I see Nate’s hand is up. Let’s listen to Nate with our voices off and our hands on our ears.”

Nate proceeded to tell us how Bigfoot lived in the forest because he read a book. And Luke chimed in that he went camping with his mom and dad and they heard a Bigfoot call and went to a store that sold Bigfoot binoculars.

PS2“Wow thanks for sharing. Today we are going to look for Bigfoot! When you hear me say ‘Bigfoot freeze!’ that means you need to stop where you are, freeze, and put on your binoculars and look at me. We’re going to see if we can find food that Bigfoot might like to eat, and maybe we can be Earth Protectors along the way and pick up any trash that Bigfoot might eat...”

I was interrupted by Ellen at that point because she really needed to tell us that if Bigfoot ate trash he would get sick, just like her dog did and they had to take him to the vet and he threw up in their car.

So with our intentions set (where can we find Bigfoot?), base knowledge established (Bigfoot has a call, lives in the forest, doesn’t eat trash but probably blackberries), and safety expectations shared (freezes were useful for crossing roads or if the kids got to far ahead of me), we started on our walk towards the park.

We took the same route most times and it became routine for me to ask “S T O P means?” while I pointed at the STOP sign. Or I would say “who sees the number 4?” or “who sees the letter N for Nate?” or even “I spy something red” and would accompany those instructions with scavenger hunt pictures I took with my phone camera from the previous walk.

PS3We would count cars, count fire hydrants, talk about solar panels to charge our robot bodies up when walking up the hill, notice rocks of different shapes, or what time the mailman walked by. Did these kids realize they were learning basic reading and scientific skills? Perhaps not, but the learning was embedded in our activities.

PS4When we got to the park the kids were off on their own adventure of being tiny in a grassy meadow, feeling like they were “lost explorers” when I was on the other side of the hedge, and generally just running freely and finding treasures.

“Bigfoot freeze!” I yell. Instantly the running stops and tiny hand binoculars are pointed at me.

“Did we find Bigfoot?” I ask.

Everyone yells no, and it’s Nate that tells me it’s because we’re in a field and it is not a forest. A trio of girls also tell me that they are Earth Protectors and we need to go and pick up the napkins and plastic on the ground because the birds might eat it. Barry tells me he found a rock with eyes on it and Luke wants to use the seven sticks he found to build a fort.

PS5“Wow I see that you all explored a lot of things in the field. Let’s go use our Earth Protector powers to clean up because it’s almost time to go. Before we leave let’s look for the rock with eyes, and how about when we get back we can make forts outside during nap time?”

Everyone said yes.

 


These are paradigm shifts that I feel like any educator that wants to focus on establishing relationships and support student centered learning can adopt. I see all aged students are able to benefit from these shifts.

From “Good job” to “I see you doing this.”
From “Stop!” to “Snowflake* freeze.”
From “Stop doing that” to “You can do that here.”
From “You and your partner will...” to “When I say go...”
From “Listen” to “Listen with your voices off.”
From “What is the answer?” to “What do you know?”
From “That’s not correct” to “How do you know that?”
From viewing behavior as a character trait to seeing it as communication.
From classroom-bound learning to learning everywhere.

I encourage you to reflect on your own practices. How have you changed, and why? What paradigm shifts can you see in your own educational journey?

 

When I first started working at my preschool in Seattle, I was transitioning from four years of outdoor environmental education (OEE) with middle school students. Although I had informal experience with toddlers, this was my first time working in a school setting. I had my tricks from the OEE field but needed to adapt and learn new methods for my younger students.

One of the first shifts I noticed was in the way my coworker spoke to the children: “I see you washing your hands.” “I see you trying to put on your pants.” “I see you using the green crayon.”

How simple! To validate a child’s existence by simply stating what you see, without judgment or opinion. I adopted this practice, using my words to state observations instead of offering praise or judgment. This simple act of acknowledgment can have a profound effect on children.

As I continued, I observed patterns in behavior. No one likes being told to do something they don’t want to do unless it involves a game or imagination play. So, clean-up time became a competition to see who could be the fastest “Earth Protector” picking up trash and toys. When thechildren’s behavior got a bit too energetic for the space, I redirected their actions into a game, such as throwing toys into a basket. Often, behavior is just communication—a need for physical movement, attention, or an outlet for emotions the kids can’t yet articulate.

I learned that young children can only handle a limited number of instructions at once. The formula given to us was “Do this then this” and “Do this, this, and then this.” I started breaking instructions into smaller, manageable chunks, saying, “When we listen, we have our voices off and touch our ears,” using scaffolding to build their skills incrementally.

In my OEE training with BEETLES (Better Environmental Education, Teaching, Learning, and Expertise Sharing), I learned the importance of asking the right kind of questions. I noticed my kids loved telling stories, whether true or not. Asking “How do you know that?” helped me understand their sources and avoid shutting them down with phrases like “That’s not true” or “That’s wrong.” This approach respects their experiences and builds their confidence.

PS1

And as I became a seasoned preschool teacher I often had to remind myself; these kids already knew what color the sky was, already knew what worms do, already knew that blackberry bushes had thorns. So instead of “Let me tell you about frogs,” I asked, “What do you know about frogs?” This shift kept my teaching more interactive and child-centered.

This approach led me to take my classroom outside. Luckily, our preschool was within a mile of a large public park. We began our day with a discussion: “What do you know about Bigfoot? Oh, I see Nate’s hand is up. Let’s listen to Nate with our voices off and our hands on our ears.”

Nate proceeded to tell us how Bigfoot lived in the forest because he read a book. And Luke chimed in that he went camping with his mom and dad and they heard a Bigfoot call and went to a store that sold Bigfoot binoculars.

PS2“Wow thanks for sharing. Today we are going to look for Bigfoot! When you hear me say ‘Bigfoot freeze!’ that means you need to stop where you are, freeze, and put on your binoculars and look at me. We’re going to see if we can find food that Bigfoot might like to eat, and maybe we can be Earth Protectors along the way and pick up any trash that Bigfoot might eat...”

I was interrupted by Ellen at that point because she really needed to tell us that if Bigfoot ate trash he would get sick, just like her dog did and they had to take him to the vet and he threw up in their car.

So with our intentions set (where can we find Bigfoot?), base knowledge established (Bigfoot has a call, lives in the forest, doesn’t eat trash but probably blackberries), and safety expectations shared (freezes were useful for crossing roads or if the kids got to far ahead of me), we started on our walk towards the park.

We took the same route most times and it became routine for me to ask “S T O P means?” while I pointed at the STOP sign. Or I would say “who sees the number 4?” or “who sees the letter N for Nate?” or even “I spy something red” and would accompany those instructions with scavenger hunt pictures I took with my phone camera from the previous walk.

PS3We would count cars, count fire hydrants, talk about solar panels to charge our robot bodies up when walking up the hill, notice rocks of different shapes, or what time the mailman walked by. Did these kids realize they were learning basic reading and scientific skills? Perhaps not, but the learning was embedded in our activities.

PS4When we got to the park the kids were off on their own adventure of being tiny in a grassy meadow, feeling like they were “lost explorers” when I was on the other side of the hedge, and generally just running freely and finding treasures.

“Bigfoot freeze!” I yell. Instantly the running stops and tiny hand binoculars are pointed at me.

“Did we find Bigfoot?” I ask.

Everyone yells no, and it’s Nate that tells me it’s because we’re in a field and it is not a forest. A trio of girls also tell me that they are Earth Protectors and we need to go and pick up the napkins and plastic on the ground because the birds might eat it. Barry tells me he found a rock with eyes on it and Luke wants to use the seven sticks he found to build a fort.

PS5“Wow I see that you all explored a lot of things in the field. Let’s go use our Earth Protector powers to clean up because it’s almost time to go. Before we leave let’s look for the rock with eyes, and how about when we get back we can make forts outside during nap time?”

Everyone said yes.

 


These are paradigm shifts that I feel like any educator that wants to focus on establishing relationships and support student centered learning can adopt. I see all aged students are able to benefit from these shifts.

From “Good job” to “I see you doing this.”
From “Stop!” to “Snowflake* freeze.”
From “Stop doing that” to “You can do that here.”
From “You and your partner will...” to “When I say go...”
From “Listen” to “Listen with your voices off.”
From “What is the answer?” to “What do you know?”
From “That’s not correct” to “How do you know that?”
From viewing behavior as a character trait to seeing it as communication.
From classroom-bound learning to learning everywhere.

I encourage you to reflect on your own practices. How have you changed, and why? What paradigm shifts can you see in your own educational journey?

 

About the Author
Patti Connors

Patti Connors is an informal environmental educator in the Puget Sound region with a special interest in indigenous pedagogy, family participation in education, and human development in early childhood education.