I have spent less time in early childhood pre-schools than at higher age and grade levels, so it was a treat to learn from Erin Carey at the pre-school division of Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta. What I saw was not only a huge leap beyond the color-and-paste days of my own pre-school days; it was a remarkable picture of how student-owned learning can flourish at even the youngest grade levels. I frankly never thought I would see a day when three-year-old children were designing their own learning directions, but that is where we are and where the promising future of K-12 learning is leading.
Mt. Vernon has created a unique blend of Regio-inspired student-owned learning and early childhood design thinking. One classroom of three or four year-olds had self-selected “ice cream” as a major theme of study; another “cars”, and a third “the water pump out in the playground”. They were learning foundational literacy and numeracy around these themes, but much more. They went on observation walks, drew sketches of what they found, and collaborated on idea maps with the help of teachers who actually know how to spell and draw. A parent came and showed them how to change a tire and then left a spare tire in the room so they could play with the lug nuts. They went on a field trip to Cold Stone to see how ice cream is made AFTER having learned about how ice cream is made on their own study path.
Erin told me about the time that one class of four-year olds, having studied the water pump, invited the two-year-olds from down the hall in to listen to a panel discussion (yes, the kids were the panel), and then ask questions and play with the pieces of PVC and other odds and ends they had gathered in making their own pumps.
I am not an expert in early childhood, but I can’t help but believe that these kids are getting a set of mind-tools that go way beyond learning letters, numbers, and how to write clean letters with a pencil. There are no iPads or other technology involved, at least as far as I saw. This is just laying a very strong foundation for the kinds of skills we claim to value: creativity, observation, synthesis, collaboration, communication, and taking ownership of learning.