How Children Learn
“The more complex the thought, the greater is the child’s need
to view its meaning through play.” ~Vivian Gussin Paley
Early childhood is a unique time in which the capacity for learning is remarkably expansive. Young children’s brains have an unparalleled ability to take in new information and to make sense of a world that is filled with novel experiences and potential discoveries. During these early years, children notice far more detail about the world and have a more heightened ability to think creatively than at any other time in development. The same traits that make it difficult for children to focus on one task at a time also facilitate their ability to make tremendous strides in the startlingly short period of the first five years of life. In that brief time, children develop fluent language. They learn to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn how to build friendships and how to problem solve. All of these skills, developed over the first five years, lay the foundation for complex tasks, such as reading and writing, which will emerge later relying upon the linguistic, motor, and social experiences of the early years.
At JCP we value and respect children’s natural ways of discovering and making sense of the world, because research tells us that this is precisely what their brains have evolved to do. As the psychologist, Alison Gopnik says, “Children are for learning.” Therefore, we believe that a child’s greatest potential for learning is only reached when we allow them to follow their innate drive to explore and experiment. Play is the young brain’s primary vehicle for learning. As they play, children test hypotheses, make comparisons, problem solve, use language, build relationships, and internalize both basic facts and complex ideas.
We scaffold children’s play and nudge them to extend their thinking and skills by providing materials that are rich in educational value and open possibility, by offering experiences that prompt them to notice new details and grapple with increasingly complex problems, and by encouraging them to revisit and revise old ideas as their understandings become more sophisticated.
We also strive to develop curriculum that is responsive to the particular curiosities and interests that children reveal through their play. Both children and adults are more open to learning when that learning is grounded in a topic we feel passionately about. Teachers attend closely to children’s play, and as particular themes or questions emerge, we weave these into our planning.
Many of the tasks children will engage in as they move into elementary school are not tasks that come naturally to the human brain. Rather they require us to draw upon every area in the brain in order to coordinate complex neurologic activity that extends beyond what any one brain region evolved to do.
Therefore, during the first five years of life, it is essential to strengthen the natural developmental capacities of the brain, so that, as children get older, every neurologic muscle will be ready to contribute to highly complex tasks like reading. The capacities that are readied in the early years are primarily sensory, language, and social in nature. We learn how to take in the world through our senses and how to make sense of it through connecting and communicating with others.
Additionally, the tasks children will be asked to engage with throughout their educational lives will require highly developed social-emotional skills and an abiding commitment to learning, even when it is challenging. Therefore, we see social skills, including the capacity to self-regulate and to work collaboratively with others, as essential to later academic success. We also view fostering a love of learning as one of our greatest responsibilities. Often learning presents challenges and frustrations, but when children have early experiences of the thrill that comes with persisting through both exciting discoveries and moments of exasperation to arrive at a new understanding, they develop the roots that nourish learning across a lifetime.
We recognize that it is important for young children to develop a foundation in the specific skill sets and content knowledge they will encounter in kindergarten, in order to enter this next phase of learning with confidence and excitement. Therefore our teachers pay close attention to assessing children’s skills, with a deep knowledge of age appropriate expectations, and they scaffold the development of skills by integrating them into meaningful, playful activities. When skills are embedded in play, children experience far more motivation to persist and develop mastery than when they are practiced in isolation. Additionally, we have a robust team of experienced, knowledgeable specialists, who work with teachers, children, and parents to develop a comprehensive understanding of each child’s learning style and development, as well as to support parents in accessing additional support whenever a child may need a little extra help.
It is our goal for each child to graduate from the ECC confident, eager to learn, and possessing a willingness to take risks that grows from feeling known and valued.
Flexibilty within Structure
In order to explore, children must first feel secure in their environment. This sense of security is established through trusting relationships, consistent expectations, and the predictability of routines. Therefore our first priority at the beginning of school is to gently ease children into the classroom setting, allowing them to get to know their teachers and peers and to become familiar with the rules and rhythms of the school day. Once children feel confident that they will be well cared for at school and can ground themselves in knowing what will come next and what will be expected of them, they are more free to experiment, deepen relationships, test the limits of their development, and make new discoveries.
Every child begins the year with a home visit from their teachers and a carefully structured phase in schedule. This allows children to develop the trusting relationships with their teachers and peers that will ground their learning. Each class follows a predictable daily schedule, which is always posted in the classroom at child height, with visual pictures so that children feel comfortable in the sequence of the day; when children are not preoccupied with wondering what will come next, they are free to engage fully in the learning activity at hand. Additionally, each classroom establishes rules for behavior early in the school year. In the older classrooms, children are active participants in determining what rules will be necessary for them to feel safe and to learn. Though children often require support to follow the rules, as they are just learning how to recognize and accommodate the needs of others, consistency helps them to feel safe in their own explorations and invested in their emerging awareness of the community.
Jewish Values & Experiences
At JCP, we seek to provide children with rich experiences of Jewish values, stories, and rituals that are woven into their daily interactions and curriculum. We view Jewish learning, not as a distinct thread that surfaces only on Shabbat and holidays, but rather as integral to the fabric of the classroom community and daily curriculum throughout the year.
As children learn to express their own ideas, listen to one another, and care for each other, they are learning to embrace the belief that every individual has inherent value and that we are responsible for one another. As they consider ways of helping both their JCP community and the world beyond our walls, through our tzedakah curriculum, they are actively experiencing and practicing their obligation to take part in the work of repairing the world. In our classrooms, children have an important voice in determining which problems and injustices they will chose to address. While one class, studying water, might decide that they want to use their tzedakah funds to support clean water or marine life, another class, studying animals, might decide to help shelter pets, and yet another class might decide that they love books so much the want to collect books for children in need. We believe that the most powerful learning experiences are rooted in children’s own interests and curiosites. Therefore, even at a very young age, we believe that children are able to internalize the power they have to affect change in the world, when that change stems from their own passions, relationships, and experiences.
As a pluralistic community, we approach the rituals and stories of Jewish tradition as experiences that have the power to connect us to one another and anchor our ability to make sense of the world, while also holding a deep respect for the diverse ways in which these stories and rituals are understood and practiced by different individuals and families. As we gather for Kabbalat Shabbat each week, we bring the tables together so that we can sit as one group; lowering the lights and joining hands, the children experience a feeling of calmness and connection. Whether they practice this ritual at home and know the prayers by heart, or only encounter it in the classroom, we find that the experience of togetherness and peace is a powerful touchpoint at the end of a busy, stimulating week. As the children experience connection through this shared ritual, they also learn about the individual differences among their classmates. Each week one family joins the class for Shabbat, bringing something unique from their own home life to share. Some families may choose to share something that is directly connected to the rituals of Shabbat, such as the family kiddush cup, while others may choose to share a favorite story, song, or activity. In each case, it is the experience of learning about one another and embracing both our similarities and differences that is the focus.
Similarly, as children learn the stories that shape the Jewish holidays, we create opportunities for them to express their own understandings of these stories through play and retelling, as well as to discuss similarities and differences in practice. For example, children might compare different shofar or go on a neighborhood walk to examine different sukkahs. Through these experience, they become familiar with the ritual aspects of the tradition, in a manner that embraces multiple entry points and forms of expression. They learn to value that which is held in common as well as that which is unique to their own experience and family.
The Role of the Family: Your Downtown Jewish Home
Family is at the heart of the JCP mission. Both within and beyond the ECC, we seek to create experiences in which families, at many different life stages, can find a communal home–a place to anchor their own individual family experience as well as to connect with other families, through community events that bring families together and through support of personal family life cycle events, challenges, and celebrations.
In the ECC, we recognize that for young children, their immediate family is the primary lens through which they view the world. As they learn and play together, we want children to feel that their own family experience is respected and celebrated, while at the same time learning to respect and celebrate the experience of other families. We also want children to experience the value in coming together as a community that is a little bit bigger than their immediate family, to learn to work together as classmates, as members of the larger JCP community, and as citizens of the world beyond their own family or school.
Through a rich array of programming for adults and children at every age and stage, we hope that families will continue to remain engaged with JCP beyond their years in the preschool and will find that they can return again and again to our downtown Jewish home. As children take on the next challenges in their educational journey, moving to a wide variety of public and private ongoing schools across the city, we remain a place the whole family can return, as a base for continuing for community connection, learning, friendship, and spiritual growth.
To read more about the experience of pluralism and diversity in the JCP ECC, please visit A School for Everyone.