Master Builders & Garden Sprites in the Early Childhood Classroom

He’s the brave one. She’s the risk taker.
The bird wings in her notebook are painted the shade of her lavender cape.
He compares patience to the line of ants nearing the peach pit in the play yard.

These are the children that child-centered teaching speaks directly to; naturally full of wonder and capable of constructing their own learning. These are the adult learners who never outgrew their imaginations or the desire for choice and consistency. These are the forest gnomes and the farmers; these are the villagers of the place-based, interactive Early Childhood Education Programs at Antioch University.

Spring is “In Bloom” in villages and forests throughout the Antioch system; in fact, conferences on the East and West Coasts are exciting the senses and shedding dappled sunlight on Early Childhood Education à la Reggio Emilia and 19th century kindergarten (children’s garden) that apply seamlessly to Next Generation Science and Common Core Standards. AU alums figure prominently at In Bloom workshops that kicked off last fall in Santa Barbara and continue in May and June with opportunities throughout New England. And they’re leading the national movement toward a Nature-based Early Childhood Education (NbEC) that grafts tech-savvy practitioners to what David Sobel, MEd, coins “the physical, socioemotional, and immersive values of making mud pies.”

“Antioch alumni are naturalizing the fabric of early childhood education,” says Sobel, senior faculty in the Department of Education at Antioch University New England (AUNE). “From Victor, Idaho to midcoast Maine, NbEC students are taking leadership roles.” According to Sobel, nature-based early childhood programs share common aims, namely honoring the primacy of children immersed in nature, and support of self-directed play. And whether NbEC educators work from a mindset of cognitive readiness, or initiative & resilience, whether they intend to bring the outdoors in, or make the forest their permanent classroom, the seeds of resilience, and the roots of empathy, of ownership – and potentially stewardship – of wild places are sprouting within their littlest sprouts.

In America’s heartland, undergraduates in the Bachelor of Arts degree and Early Childhood license at Antioch University Midwest (UAM) follow a program peppered with the wisdom of another time and place. Inspired by the research of a post-war Italian psychologist from the villages surrounding Reggio Emilia, the AUM approach fosters access to the “hundred languages”: the imaginative powers that come so naturally to young children. AUM students graduate with powers, too: tools to integrate the symbolic language of play and support the creative process.

“The Reggio Approach is completely consistent with the values of experiential education we practice at Antioch University,” says Julie Biddle, PhD, Chair of AUM’s Early Childhood, Middle Childhood, and Advanced Programs in Education. “Children, youth, adults – we all learn better when we’re active rather than passive participants in our education.”

Early childhood education can impact the potential of the village – mentor guide and apprentice alike. According to Biddle, educators in this country are coming around to the value of responding to imaginative play with imagination: “Research demonstrates that providing rich learning and social environments for pre-kindergarteners is a key to healthy brain development and sets the stage for lifelong learning.” Graduates of the Nature-based programs also approach teaching in the woods with boots on the ground – or swinging somewhere slightly above the ground, as any good wood nymph boot might be expected to float.

It does take a village. Early Childhood Education students throughout AU build trust and face ambiguity through reflection, relationships, and reciprocal learning. These same tools serve their young charges in their fearless quests and prepare youngsters up to remain powerful, competent leaders as they face the pressures of the upper grades. By responding to the natural and abundant curiosity of our youngest citizens, AU “village” educators are supporting the growth of strong and confident voices. They are teaching children to trust the Master Builder within.


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