Teachers in the primary grades have known for some time that children are entering school lacking the experiences upon which our educational expectations are built. We have assumed that children have spent their first years engaged in play at home but observation of four and five year olds in classrooms make it clear that many are unfamiliar with toys as basic as blocks. While leaders in the education field have finally recognized that children are starting school with deficits in language development, in fact, the deficits extend to virtually all areas of development including play. Societal changes are evident as many urban children are not permitted to play outdoors due to the violence in their neighborhoods. Further, parents respond to the techno-toy industry by investing in Nintendo instead of “old-fashioned” toys such as blocks. Children describe spending their time watching T.V. and playing video games. They are passive receivers of fleeting images on a screen which are not of their own creation. A vast majority of Kindergartners have not used scissors or crayons before entering school. As a result, they do not bring a repertoire of insights, a visual bank, to school built on personal experiences gained through play with objects and in places imagined or real. Children come to urban schools in observable states of shock, veterans of the war of poverty and violence. Ideally, the classroom becomes a haven of hope where we have a brief opportunity to restore the childhood lost.
Current discussions at the federal level regarding educational reform emphasize the need to focus on early childhood issues. However, not all administrators or teachers take these issues seriously nor do they subscribe to developmental theory which promotes the value of learning through play. However, this approach to learning is not new. In fact, we are revisiting the reforms presented by the 19th century German educator Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) founder of the Kindergarten movement.
Froebel’s aim was “to educate the child through self activity beginning with what he can grasp and what is attractive to him.” He emphasized the “inner connection between the pupil and the object which he studies” as the law of development of the child. He investigated the relation of the child and his activities in play to the growth of his mind. “The mind grows by self revelation. In play the child ascertains what he can do, discovers his possibilities of will and thought by exerting his power spontaneously. In work he follows a task prescribed for him by another, and doesn’t reveal his own proclivities and inclinations; but another’s. In play he reveals his own original power.”
While Froebel’s intent was to reform German education, his doctrines also had a strong influence in England and America. It seems he laid down the gauntlet for what was to become an ongoing discussion between what we know today as the developmentalists or interactionists and the behaviorists. Education swings like a pendulum between the two philosophies. After several decades of “back to basics” also known as “drill and kill”, reflecting the behaviorist school of thought, we are once more embracing the developmentalist/interactionist view advanced by Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner. One notable difference in the current wave of reform is the effort to create a national curriculum.
My experience as a parent and educator leads me to believe that the lack of traditional play experiences helps explain the numbers of children coming to the classroom with deficient eye/hand coordination, two-handedness and visual/spatial understanding as well as poor language development. It may be that the technological changes we are experiencing in our world are so profound that these skills will not be needed in the future. For now and however long our society values these skills, it is incumbent upon the early childhood teacher to fill the gaps before the child can successfully enter the curriculum our school systems present. I welcome the educational reforms which focus on early childhood developmental issues and eliminate the workbook/paper & pencil approach to early learning. It must be noted that at the same time the curriculum is integrating technology through the use of age appropriate computer software for Kindergartners. Education, like all social institutions, must continually change to meet contemporary needs.
This unit is presented as a discussion of the role of blocks in the learning process.