The importance of values-based early childhood education has never been more apparent. Watching the news, I can’t help but think that if people had a foundation rooted in caring for others, the ability to think for oneself, and understanding of the importance of community, they wouldn’t behave in the disheartening ways we see today.
I believe that quality early childhood education begins with core beliefs about children. We must see children as capable citizens of the world who can construct knowledge, rather than as vessels to be filled by known facts. We must help them develop a sense of how we as people are interconnected and must rely on and care for one another. And we must model respect and kindness for them in all our interactions. When educators hold these core beliefs at the center of their work, all of their choices are made with love and intention.
Young children are just beginning to form their understanding of themselves as individuals and their approach to the world around them. They are building the fundamental tools for creating relationships. We have an amazing opportunity to influence their approach and feelings about themselves and others. So, how do we do this?
First and foremost, we can relate with children in partnership. If we believe that they are capable of constructing knowledge, we want to provide open-ended experiences for them to explore. Rather than entering the classroom with an agenda of what to teach them, we can intentionally provide materials and experiences that allow children to explore and develop theories. This begins with the materials we make available. From prisms in the windows, to magnifying glasses, to blocks and loose parts, materials can encourage children to create and explore rather than perform a specific task.
This does not mean leaving children to their own devices; teachers are paying close attention to what the children do and say. They engage with the children in their wonder and excitement, and challenge them to explore theories and experiment with materials and ideas. For example, when children notice rainbows on the floor, we encourage them to wonder, “Where did the rainbows come from? Are they changing? How can we interact with them?” In this way, we are not telling children about the world around them. Instead, we are challenging them to think for themselves and showing them that their thoughts and ideas are valued.
Modeling the importance of community and respect for others is another essential lesson that we can foster in classrooms for young children. The way teachers interact with each other, with parents, and with the children send strong messages about the kind of society we value. Teachers play an important role as they balance the role of nurturer with the ability to challenge children appropriately. Children need to feel love and security from their grown-ups—this is essential—but they also must feel that their trusted adults have faith in their abilities. Teachers consistently send this message when they encourage children to try new things and to persist in something challenging, and when they celebrate successes along with children.
Teachers demonstrate the value in interconnectivity when they urge children to ask each other for assistance with something difficult, when they highlight the ways each child cares for the classroom and materials, and when they encourage children to help one another by saying, “She’s feeling upset. How can we help her?” When an issue or conflict comes up in a classroom, instead of the teacher determining the solution, she or he can bring the issue to the group and together discuss how to handle it.
For example, in one classroom, children may be constantly arguing over the use of a particular material. The teacher can choose to highlight this struggle and bring it up to the group. “I notice that everyone wants to use this toy and it leads to friends arguing and getting upset. How can we figure this out?” In doing this, the teacher is sending several messages to the children. She is telling them that she thinks they are capable of handling a tough situation and coming up with a solution. She is showing them that when conflict arises, we need to address it, and the group as a whole needs to devise a solution that works for all. If only these messages from an early childhood classroom could spread across the world.
I watched the principles outlined above come to life recently, through a year-long project taken up by one of our 4/5s classes. It started in the fall, when the children created a lemonade stand and raised money to buy items for the Next Step Men’s Shelter, which was housed in our synagogue. The children wanted to repeat the experience, and the teachers challenged them to think of a different means of raising money while still honoring their entrepreneurial spirits. Around the same time, teachers who had attended a weaving workshop for educators were inspired to bring the craft back to our classrooms.
Soon after, a pencil holder posted on the board outside of their classroom broke, and the children in this 4/5s class decided to create a new one. The first version, made of paper and tape, did not last long. One child decided to use her newfound weaving skills to create one. The success of the woven pencil holder led other children to become interested in weaving. The children then realized that their woven crafts were beautiful and unique, and they came up with the idea of selling them.
They decided to weave challah covers and sell those along with challah rolls that they would bake. The teachers led them to research challah covers, and students consulted with a Rabbi, and took measurements from challah covers borrowed from other classrooms. They realized that it would take a long time to create enough covers to sell, so they outsourced some of the labor—parents, grandparents, siblings, and caregivers were invited into the studio to learn how to weave and create challah covers. The children created instructions for their helpers to follow, with drawings and words to guide them. The children also created a company name, logo, and slogan. They became Super Weavers: Superheroes Who Weave Fast.
On the day of the big sale, the students quickly sold all their challah covers and rolls, raising more than $500 for the men’s shelter. One parent shared her thoughts on the project: “Hats/challah covers off to you for creating a space for the children to become social justice entrepreneurs, with a creative flair. The children seemed so proud of all they accomplished. Thank you for giving them this experience and the scaffolding of the curriculum to lead up to this all year. You’ve instilled gifts they will hold onto for a lifetime.”
This project exemplifies the impact of values-based teaching. The children were empowered to solve problems, research, and take ownership over their ideas. The goal of raising money for the shelter speaks to their feelings of responsibility toward others. The way the children taught the community how to weave and invited all to their big sale is a wonderful example of the community participation and responsibility that these children see as a vital part of their school experience. This is just one example to illustrate the effects that values-based teaching can have: children who feel emboldened to create and to care for their community.
Miriam Kalmar is director of the Early Childhood Center at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan.
This article originally appeared in the 2022 Parents League Review and is reprinted with permission.