Tuesday June 27, 2006

Playful Learning

UD experts develop approach to early childhood education that helps preschool teachers manage new state content standards.

Call it playtime with a purpose.

Now, teachers need to document that preschoolers are learning while they play because 48 states, including Ohio, have implemented content standards for early childhood classrooms.

"I thought we were fingerpainting because it's fun," said Ellen Padgett, a preschool teacher at the University of Dayton's Bombeck Family Learning Center, where the staff use the latest research in early childhood education practices. "But there's a science lesson going on with the black and white paint, mixing of colors and the different shades."

Content standards, also in place for elementary and secondary grades, detail what students should know, understand and be able to do. They were established in part due to the federal No Child Left Behind Act's emphasis on accountability. Now, youngsters enrolled in child care centers, preschool or Head Start are expected to learn the concepts outlined in those standards, and teachers must document their preschoolers' progress. For many teachers, the thought of integrating all this in a classroom filled with young children is daunting.

Yet four early childhood education experts at the University of Dayton say it can be done.

They've developed a curriculum framework they believe to be one of the first that establishes a process teachers can use to simultaneously meet state standards and document students' progress — all while continuing to nurture the developmental growth of young children. Because it is not topic specific or tied to Ohio's standards, the framework is flexible enough to be used by early childhood educators nationwide.

At a recent conference held by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the UD team presented its curriculum framework during a two-hour, standing-room-only workshop attended by more than 100 people, twice the number of attendees expected. The response was overwhelming and positive.

"The piece we were pushing was assessment," UD education professor Joni Baldwin said. "People are very concerned about how to add that without overwhelming teachers. We really think we're one of the first in the field to say, 'We can do all of this.'"

The UD team's framework is centered on an "emergent curriculum," in which teachers identify children's interests, then use those to craft activities that address the content standards. For example, if students are fascinated by space, the teacher will use this as a central theme in such activities as building a spaceship. While the students see this as part of their play, they also are learning material in the content standards, such as the words "sun," "moon" and "stars."

Research shows this is the most effective way to educate young children because it is built around their emerging interests, Bombeck Center Director Diana Smith said.

Bombeck Center teachers have been using an emergent curriculum for several years. Now, they're also trying some approaches that will allow them to more easily document their students' progress in meeting the standards. Those approaches include portfolios featuring student work samples and teacher observations, as well as forms detailing the standards students need to learn. Together, the UD team hopes such assessment methods will allow teachers to fully capture students' development.

"We want these to be observational tools teachers can easily use to document what the children are learning while they play," Baldwin said. "Staff has been involved all the way. This is not something we're doing and handing to the teachers."

Indeed, integrating teachers' feedback is one reason it will take the team a while to perfect the curriculum framework.

"This year has been development of the framework, and next year will be implementation," Smith said. "I imagine this will be a working document for a couple of years."

However, it's a process the UD team is sure is worth the wait.

"The bottom line is that we're doing this so we provide children with the very best experience — not just to prepare them for kindergarten but to give them the very best we can provide," Smith said. "That's the whole point of the standards and assessment."

For media interviews, contact members of the curriculum framework development team Shauna Adams at 937-229-3372, Joni Baldwin at 937-229-3230, Joy Comingore at 937-229-5553 or Diana Smith at 937-229-5381. For a list of Ohio's content standards, go to www.OhioAcademicStandards.com.