Creating Early Child Care Environments for Children to be Independent

I have learned a lot of lessons from children in my 37 years working in early child care. One in particular stands out to me. Thirty years ago, I learned the hard way that children need opportunities to exercise autonomy and leadership. Sometimes too much structure can cause classroom chaos!

Well Intentioned (Over) Planning

It was summer, 1986, and I was excited. I had been working as a Lead Teacher in a large corporate early child care program since the fall. I had finally earned my vacation week and couldn’t wait.

I taught the three-year-old class. There were three teachers in the classroom with 30 children. It had taken me eight months but I had finally gotten everyone on the same page and, in my eyes, we were a well-oiled machined.

We rotated small groups of children inside and outside. That way, at any given time there were never more than 15-20 children indoors in the classroom. We provided interesting learning centers for children to rotate through. Children knew there was a timer and they knew what to do when it went off. They knew when I flicked the lights it was time to clean up and put toys away. Sounds like heaven, right?

I thought it was perfect until I came back from vacation and heard that the substitute had left after the second day and that my darling little children had become screaming and defiant youngsters. How could this be? They were the most well behaved children in the center. I couldn’t imagine what could have happened. I had spent weeks preparing my plans and preparing materials.

Turning Things Around

I wanted to know what went wrong. So I decided to go straight to the source. In small group time, I asked my precious little three-year-olds what had happened while I was out. And straight from the “mouth of babes” it came, “You weren’t here to tell us what to do.” It hit me like a ton of bricks. I planned my lesson plans, I set up centers, and I rotated children. The children knew my signals and expectations but I had never given them the opportunity to think and process for themselves.

When I wasn’t there to direct them, they were lost. This certainly wasn’t preparing them for Kindergarten or life. They needed to know how to find their own resources and how to get along with many different children.

The very next week I started making changes.

Big Changes from Little People

Lesson Plans: How I created lesson plans had to change. Now, they were created by all teachers in the classroom with children’s input. Anytime a child showed interest in something or made a remark about something specific, we put it on the Lesson Plan board. From there, it either became a theme or was included in a theme. We added the topic to our small group meeting so that there were always opportunities for children to have input. If something was really popular, we did it for weeks.

Learning centers: We banished the learning center rotations quickly. Children never had time to actually finish anything as most rotations were only about ten minutes. Some children liked certain centers and others didn’t. We learned that if we wanted certain children to take part in certain centers, we had to include something that interested them.

Children began to choose their own centers and spend as much or as little time as they needed. This allowed children to finish projects and play with different groups of children. It also allowed children to determine on their own if there would be room for them to join in the activity. We used dots on the floor to help children with this. At any given time children would ask if there was room and children would stand on a dot. If there was a free dot, they could enter the center. If there wasn’t a free dot, they knew they had to wait their turn.

Snack: Snack time became unscheduled and open! I made the snack table available most of the day. Children ate snack when they were hungry and not when I told them they were hungry.

Outside: On most days, there was at least one teacher stationed outside. On pretty days, or following days we stayed inside because of bad weather, there were two teachers stationed outside. We had Walkie-talkies in those days to communicate when a child was joining the outside group or coming in to do centers. This way, a teacher always had an eye on a child that was coming or going and always had a head count. We were very fortunate that our door opened onto the playground.

Art: No more cutting pieces out for “crafts.” Children were supplied with the materials and through the themes and activities they were supplied with the ideas. They added their imaginations.

The Results

After about two months, I sat back and watched my little darlings. They were communicating with other children, communicating with teachers, they made decisions on their own, and they were all around happier children. I actually found more time to observe children because I wasn’t doing all the work. Children had a role in their day and actually made pretty good decisions all on their own.

We still had our learning objectives but they were embedded in conversations and materials that were provided. We guided conversations throughout the day and activities with open-ended questions and discussion.

In case you were wondering, my next vacation went much smoother! We also ended up hiring the substitute as the Lead Teacher when I moved up to be the Assistant Director.

Get more information on preparing children for kindergarten and still letting children be children. http://info.teachstone.com/teacher-tips-connecting-with-prek-learners

How do you support children in developing autonomy and leadership?

About the Author

Janet Burke is the Director of Child Development Services at ChildSavers, a nonprofit organization that believes that all children can be safe, happy, healthy and ready to learn.  She manages six core programs that support this belief; Child Care Aware of Central Virginia, Child Development Training, Child Development Associate Certificate Program, Virginia Quality Central Region, Voluntary Registration for the Central Region and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.  Janet joined ChildSavers in 1992 where she has worked as a trainer, supervisor, coordinator, program manager and

 director.  She has been a Master Rater and Master Trainer for Virginia’s Quality and Rating Improvement System since 2007 where she was trained in the first cohort of trainers.  Along with 36 years of experience of working in early care and with early care professionals, she has a Certificate in Early Childhood and a Certificate in Supervisory and Leadership and has taken many other child development and business classes over the years. This includes being trained by the authors for CLASS, Environmental Rating Scale, Here, Now and Down the Road, MyTeachingPartner and DECA.  She holds current certifications.

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