Seeing young children as citizens

October 22, 2014

Research creates a framework for early learning and child care in Alberta

A four-year-old dresses up in scarves and hats, a group of three-year-olds pretend to have tea and a 14-month-old chooses between a piece of cheese and a slice of apple at snack time. These may seem like unremarkable moments in a typical day at child care centres and day homes across the province, but a research project, led by Early Learning and Child Care (ELCC) faculty members Lee Makovichuk, Tricia Lirette, Nancy Thomas and Jane Hewes, is attempting to demonstrate otherwise.

According to the research team, the four-year-old is exploring play and playfulness, the three-year-olds are expressing their growing understanding of social roles and relationships, and the baby is learning to make decisions for herself.

“These everyday moments are the source of early learning and child care curriculum,” says Lee. “Even though young children aren’t citizens in the traditional sense—they can’t vote or get a driver’s licence, early childhood educators can recognize and support young children’s contributions to their communities from a very young age. Everyday experiences in child care can foster a strong sense of identity and positive dispositions towards learning.”

Recognizing that young children are citizens in their own right is at the heart of this three-year research project to develop a made-in-Alberta early learning and child care curriculum framework for early childhood educators working with children from birth to five years.

With $200,000 in grant funding from Alberta Human Services and the active participation of MacEwan University ELCC program faculty and Child Care Centre Lab School educators, the researchers partnered with colleagues in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Mount Royal University, who received a separate grant to pilot the draft framework in 10 programs around the province. Play, Participation, and Possibilities: An Early Learning and Child Care Curriculum Framework for Alberta was developed with the advice of a 75-member provincial advisory committee, and engaged the educators, children and families in four local child care programs in co-authoring sample learning stories to illustrate curriculum in action.

Building a foundation for learning

Play, Participation, and Possibilities focuses on four broad, holistic goals for early learning and child care: wellbeing, play and playfulness, communication and literacies, and diversity and social responsibility.

“The curriculum framework validates the work many educators do every day—the curriculum decisions that are embedded in caring, playing and learning—and may also offer new ways of looking at practice,” says Jane. “It will make early childhood educators’ work visible so they can reflect on it, talk about it and connect what they’re doing with broader goals,” adds Nancy.

It also provides a common language and reference point for describing and interpreting what is happening when children are in the sandbox or playing with paint, helping educators understand in a deeper way the theories, relationships and learning children are building.

“Reflecting on the framework goals can inspire creative and inventive ways for educators to extend play by adding materials, moving things outdoors or adding light and water.” says Lee.

Sharing learning stories with families

Turning those learning moments into stories that can be shared with parents is another important part of the framework.

“Infants can’t tell their parents what has happened during the day and toddlers can’t explain how playing in the sandbox helps them learn about the basic physics of sand, so we use stories to help families understand the learning that is happening even at a young age,” explains Lee. “By the time the child goes to school, the parents should have seen a number of these stories and developed a pretty deep awareness of the things their child really excels at and what kinds of supports they need.”

With an additional $150,000 in funding from the Ministry of Human Services for the coming year, an expanded team of faculty and educators at MacEwan will build on the more than 40 learning stories already collected. The participation of educators at several community-based child care programs, along with the MacEwan University Child Care Centre Lab School, will continue to provide an essential practice context for the research.

“We’ll be adding stories that illustrate what learning looks and feels like in specialized settings that serve families who may be at risk, are newcomers to Canada, or who have children with special needs,” says Tricia.

Professional learning for early childhood educators

The researchers will also spend the third year of the project finding ways to build capacity within the workforce to implement the curriculum framework.

“It’s reassuring for us to hear that educators see the curriculum framework in a positive light and that it is helping them reconnect with what drew them to this type of work in the first place—a view that children are really important, unique and full of potential—but we also know that they already have substantial demands placed on them. Working within the framework and creating learning stories takes time and skill. Finding ways to support educators is something we will be addressing.”

The Early Learning and Child Care program at MacEwan is already using the curriculum framework with students in the diploma program, as are faculty in many of the diploma programs around the province. “It’s really exciting to think about early childhood educators beginning their careers with these new ideas,” says Tricia. “And the enthusiasm we’ve seen from everyone in the field has been so inspiring. It can only mean good things for children and their families.”

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