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Academic implores EC teachers: ‘become interesting’

“We’ve all got to become interested and interesting,” declared Sandra Cheeseman, an early childhood education lecturer at Macquarie University.

This was her retort to the question, “How can teachers intellectually stimulate toddlers?” in relation to her upcoming talk, ‘Ten things children should experience every day in an early childhood setting’.

Cheeseman seeks to challenge a prevailing idea in early childhood education: that to teach children, we should only follow their interests. “There seems to be a notion that play is enough,” she ruminated. “But there’s also a role for adults.”

While she refuted the notion that we should all strive to raise mini-Einsteins, she said there’s a place for intellectual rigor in preschool. “We want there to be interesting things for children to do, so I think not being afraid to talk to children about mathematical and scientific concepts [is important],” she reflected.

For instance, for children aged 2 to 3, teachers can introduce the mathematical concept of shapes by having tots observe them in things in the natural environment, like leaves, shells and nuts.

“Even though those concepts may be beyond kids’ current comprehension, the fact that someone’s using that vocabulary, exposing children to those ideas, makes [the kids] more thoughtful,” Cheeseman explained. “This offers them the opportunity to theorise and solve their own problems.”

She also emphasised the vital importance of play-based learning, yet cautioned that not all play is created equal. An example of ‘good’ play-based learning she provided was getting adults actively involved, in, for instance, dramatic play. They could ask a question like, “how long do you think you will need to cook that cake?” to further the imaginative narrative, and expose them to concepts like time, prediction and theorising. Nonetheless, there is such a thing as too much control – kids should have a degree of free rein.

By contrast, a ‘poor’ play situation occurs when adults literally take a backseat for the duration of playtime, when “adults [are] just sitting down and stargazing, thinking about what they might cook for dinner or where they might go after work”, Cheeseman explained. 

She summarised her play position thus: “The best kind of play is where there’s a sensitive adult who gets involved but can also take time out.”

But consistent with her view on best-practice early education being a child and adult-directed experience, education, through play or otherwise, isn’t the be-all and end-all, in her opinion. She deemed nurture equally as important as edification in an early-childhood setting. “It’s about both,” she affirmed.

As for her take-home message, she stressed the importance of the teacher’s role in kids’ development. “I want to make people really understand and appreciate the importance of the role they have,” she urged. “They can make a real difference in children’s lives.”

Sandra Cheeseman will be speaking at In Pursuit of Playfulness, Curiosity and Innovation on August 13 at UTS, Sydney. Go here for more information.

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