There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children. Nelson Mandela
Many have argued that educators and government in particular should be committed to igniting each student’s motivation, persistence, and compassion, which would guide these stakeholders to lift up best practices that complement the ways children learn most naturally. Young children’s inherent capacities can be harnessed in service of these goals of developing deep thinkers, lifelong learners, compassionate community members, and creative future leaders.
We intend to highlight the unique needs and strengths of typical young children, identifying eleven key characteristics of children in primary school especially those from primary 1 to Primary 4(grade1 to grade 4) – their ways of thinking and engaging with the world and their remarkable hunger for learning. Each of these characteristics is based on the writings of developmental psychologists and educators such as Lev Vygotsky, Maria Montessori, and Jean Piaget, as well as recent peer-reviewed research and the experience of primary educators in our network.
- Young children find security in rhythm, ritual, and repetition. Primary students live in the present tense. They experience the flow of time in the rhythms of the day, the week and the year. They do not relate to the abstract symbol of hands on a clock to know “when” they are. A feeling of order and independence is established in the consistent patterns of their schedule. Children love the predictability of repeating stories, songs, and activities. They delight in the rhymes, meters and alliterations of language. They feel a sense of security and control as they live through the recurring rhythms of the school day, anticipate the special traditions of the week, and celebrate the annual festivals of the year. No wonder those who lived in the folklore era are good learners and great achievers.
- Young children learn through play. Play is the highest form of research. One of the most important indicators of a species’ intelligence is the behaviour of its young – all intelligent animals play (Ackerman, 1999). Primary learners are at an age where learning capacity and brain development are at their peak, and nature has given them the drive to maximize that power with its best learning tool – play. It is no surprise that children prefer acting and interacting to listening passively. It is how they are designed. Play is the context within which primary students can develop vital skills that are harder to practice in more structured formats – complex decision-making and leadership roles. It invites the “having of wonderful ideas.” Play also builds the foundation for abstract representational thinking – a rag on a stick becomes a flag, just as a set of squiggles on a page stands for a word. Play encourages children to create and narrate their own worlds, grapple with the challenges most urgent to them, and gain experience negotiating alliances, roles, and strategies with their peers. Encouraging play in the classroom, and strategically harnessing its power for specific learning purposes allows for authentic engagement and deep learning opportunities for our youngest students.
- Young children want to belong to a community that is safe, beautiful, and good. More important than any curriculum or instruction is a culture of love, warmth, and beauty. Children are keen observers of the environment and adult behaviour – what they see when they walk into the classroom, how they are greeted by their teacher and classmates, and how they perceive social interactions all have a profound effect on their sense of belonging (Howard, 2006). A strong relationship with an adult in the classroom is especially critical for young students to feel safe. The teacher’s love, care, and thoughtfulness are evident in the organization of the classroom, the display of beautiful student work, and the quality of the materials for expression, learning, and play. Classroom communities celebrating acts of kindness and respectfully resolving conflict reinforce a sense of justice and good will. Singing and dancing together create a language of unity that young children understand – a sense of safety in a community that is greater than any individual member.
- Young children explore the world with wonder. Except for children (who don’t know enough not to ask the important questions), few of us spend time wondering why nature is the way it is. Children are always asking questions. They hunger to make discoveries, to find answers that will help them make meaning of the world around them. They ask questions not to annoy or interrupt, but to pursue their inherent drive to learn. So when next a child asks a question, please do oblige the child. Guiding this relentless curiosity in the direction of students’ academic growth without squelching it is a primary teacher’s greatest challenge. By joining students in the inquiry process and creating rich opportunities for discovery, for building deep expertise, and for sharing that new knowledge, teachers are able to harness the “engine” of children’s natural learning predispositions to power their success in the classroom.
- Young children “understand” the world first through their bodies. I move, therefore I am. Children are born to move. Haruki Murakami. They explore the world with their bodies, particularly their senses, before they process it with their minds. They learn best when their bodies are fully engaged. Because of busy family schedules, limited access to the outdoors, and the allure of electronic devices, children need opportunities to develop their physical senses. Occupational therapy researchers have documented the strong connections between sensory development and academic success (Flanagan, 2009). Cognitive skills and literacy are built on a foundation of sensory integration. WhyBlueSky founders find ways to develop applications for the senses through playful movement, and to link learning with physical activity. They invite children to explore complex concepts first through movement, then through feelings, and finally in thought.
- Young children seek independence and mastery. Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed. Maria Montessori. Primary learners seek to assert power and gain control over their world (Erikson, 1959). They take great pride in accomplishing independent tasks – tying their shoes, building a tower, or caring for seedlings. Primary children look to adults to model the skills and attitude required to gain independence, imitating and practicing what they observe through pretend as well as “real” work. They long for challenging, meaningful, authentic work. When they find it, they engage with great perseverance, a sense of craftsmanship, and joyful purpose. They delight in sharing and celebrating their accomplishments with others, through speaking, writing/dictation, art, music or drama. When teachers take children’s work seriously and design environments and activities that promote autonomy and mastery, they allow their students to take ownership of their learning.
- Young children thrive in the natural world. If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it. Children experience order, beauty, and diversity in the natural world. The outdoors beckons them with an endless variety of flowers, trees and fascinating creatures – in the lawns of their school, or the cracks in the asphalt playground. Nature offers opportunities for the pre-literacy skills of close observation and detailed questioning. Students experience risk-taking adventure, from holding an earthworm to conquering the praying mantis, and evaluate risk as they grapple with success and failure – Can I climb that tree? Can I jump over that stump? Spending time in the outdoors creates a context for self-discovery. It fosters a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself and participation in the interdependent web of life. The natural world inspires reverence and wonder, an essential foundation for learning. Bringing nature indoors and children outdoors fills important developmental and human needs.
- Young children use stories to construct meaning. “The head does not hear anything until the heart has listened. The heart knows today what the head will understand tomorrow.” James Stephens. In our cultures throughout history, humans have used stories to give meaning to events, to express their values, fears and hopes. In the oral culture of young children, stories provide the cognitive structure to explore big ideas and express deep emotions. Telling their own stories helps children to organize and sequence information, and communicate their thoughts and feelings – from the simple tale of what happened on the playground, to the complex explanation of why it rains or the sluggish movement of the snail and the cunning ways of tortoises. Narrative development in the primary years is a strong predictor of success in reading and writing. (Snow, Burns, and Griffin, 1998). They develop moral imagination through the feelings generated by classic fairy tales and legends from around the world – a love for what is good and beautiful, empathy for the oppressed, loathing of the bully and the cheater.
- Young children seek patterns in the world around them. Children’s learning begins long before they enter school … They have had to deal with operations of division, addition, subtraction, and the determination of size. They search for patterns in everything they observe. Seeking order in their surroundings, they notice the angles in a brick walkway or the flowers that can be made from diamond shaped play tiles. They sort and quantify and measure nearly everything around them – separating the colours in a bag of M&Ms, comparing the size of their brownie to a sibling’s, or counting the number of building blocks. Learning to communicate mathematical ideas visually and verbally is an inherently exciting challenge. Similarly, finding order in the structure of words and language delights young learners. They discover letters of their names in street signs, notice refrains in songs, and patterns of rhyme and alliteration in poetry and prose. Listening for and affirming pattern discoveries and helping students to name, create, and manipulate patterns is a key part of the work of the early primary teacher.
- Young children construct their identities and build cultural bridges. There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings. Henry Ward Beecher. Nearly all children travel between cultures when they travel from home to school. For some the cultural differences are more dramatic than for others – different foods, different words, different unconscious patterns of body language, different fundamental values. Primary students are remarkably adept at learning the new culture of school but are also particularly vulnerable to unspoken negative messages about the values, language, and traditions of their home culture. At an age when identity as part of a family group and as a unique self are in transition, children need to see their home culture reflected positively in their school experience (Brooker and Whitehead, 2008). They also need affirmation of their developing gender identities (Park and Gauvaine, 2009), personal preferences, and unique strengths. Because children develop at different rates, skilled primary teachers find ways to affirm the abilities and preferences of each of their students, to celebrate diversity and encourage inclusion. Embracing the distinct cultural identities and individual differences of students creates a solid foundation on which students can build bridges between their school community and their cultural and individual selfhood. A characteristic needed in national development, tribal and religious tolerance.
- Young children express themselves in complex ways. The child has a hundred languages, a hundred hands, a hundred thoughts, a hundred ways of thinking, of playing, of speaking. Loris Malaguzzi. Primary students construct and express their understanding of the world around them in a variety of complex ways. They express their thoughts, emotions, questions, and needs through different modalities. A painting may describe a child’s experience visiting a relative, stacked blocks may represent a hospital; sketches, scribbles or wobbly letters may tell the story of sibling rivalry; and a song or dance may demonstrate a child’s understanding of the seasons. Young children express their individuality and needs in the unconscious ways that they speak and move – in their posture, gesture, and tone of voice, in the way they walk or hold a pencil.
These eleven unique characteristics have deep implications for practice to primary educators. In some cases, the needs of primary students are no different from those of any age – the need to belong, to express themselves, and to engage in challenging, meaningful work. In others, they invite an approach that emphasizes certain practices, adapts others in developmentally appropriate ways, or creates unique structures and tools to provide the foundation that will support cognitive and social flourishing as they mature. The caterpillar requires different nourishment than the butterfly. If we can we harness primary students’ natural strengths to develop their character, imagination, identity, and physical engagement, we are able to provide the optimal foundation for all students to become active contributors to building a better world and succeed in school, college, career, and life.