Early Childhood Education

Pedagogy, Activity-Based/Experiential


Activity-based, experiential pedagogy asserts that effective learning in early childhood (and sometimes beyond) requires opportunities for children to engage in activities on their own initiative for extended periods of time. The immediate, active interplay with objects and their inherent concepts, or consideration of people’s roles and their various relationships to one another, allows children to begin to develop an authentic understanding of how they work. The underlying theories of this form of pedagogy posit that children are not passive recipients of knowledge transmitted from their environment, but active participants in their own development as they interpret, construct, and transform their experiences, taking learning into their own hands both literally and figuratively. Many current educational philosophies in the United States and Europe make use of these theories in their rationale for child-directed, play-based experiences at school, including the approaches of Maria Montessori (1962), Waldorf (Oldfield, 2001), Reggio Emilia, the Creative Curriculum, High/Scope, and Koplow’s therapeutic curriculum (1996).

The roots of activity-based, experiential pedagogy go back to the early 1800s, when German educator Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) created the first kindergarten program, a carefully planned and monitored environment where young children could freely use thoughtfully selected materials that Froebel called gifts. These gifts, also known as occupations, included geometric shapes made of wood and metal, yarn and cloth, paper, pencils, and scissors. Froebel believed that play is the heart of the learning process, utilizing children’s “channeling of spontaneous energies into orderly behavior” (Gutek, 1991). He conceived of the classroom as a place to experience happiness and fulfillment at an early age and to develop a sense of self, benefiting both the individual and society as the child grew toward adulthood.

Soon after Froebel, the new field of psychology provided a plethora of theories supporting activity-based, experiential learning, including the work of Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky. Central to their concepts of ego development (Freud), identity formation (Erikson), equilibration (Piaget), and the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky) is the premise that children are active agents in their own individual development.

In the United States, John Dewey (1859-1952) articulated a philosophy of experience-based learning as a dialectic between students and mentors. He believed that learning began when a student encountered experiences where there was doubt, uncertainty, and questioning. Dewey considered the human mind, from the youngest age onward, to have the capacity for seeking answers through self-initiated, trial-and-error inquiry, facilitated by a teacher or mentor figure. He implemented his educational philosophy in developing the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago.

American psychologist and educator Jerome Bruner (born 1915) extended Dewey’s ideas to their more contemporary expression—namely, the role of play in early education. Bruner describes play as an approach to action, rather than as a particular form of activity. The important characteristic of the mental approach to experiences during play is its nonliteral, not-for-real premise. In play with objects and during pretending, children engage in hypothetical thinking: “What if I be the auntie and you be the policeman and my dog is sick ...” Children work through ideas to their logical conclusions and then rewrite the script, switching roles and trying out different possibilities. Play is critical to development, Bruner argues, because through it children refine their skills in symbolic thinking and in using symbols, particularly language, as they establish a sense of meaningful connection to the ideas and experiences around them (1977).

American early childhood educator Vivian Paley has provided some of the richest descriptions in the professional literature of young children’s learning through play as storytelling. Her many books (c.f., 1981) describe the implementation of play-based experiential learning in contemporary early childhood classrooms. Paley’s work expands our understanding of experience-based activity as pedagogy and, in particular, the teacher’s role. As Paley has grown in her understanding of children’s play, she has revised her understanding of the teacher’s role in relation to children’s learning:

There was a time when I believed it was my task to show the children how to solve their problems. I wrote: I do not ask you to stop thinking about play. Our contract [between teacher and children] read more like this: If you will keep trying to explain yourselves, I will keep showing you how to think about the problems you need to solve.

After a few years, the contract needed to be rewritten: Let me study your play and figure out how play helps you solve your problems. Play contains your questions, and I must know what questions you are asking before mine will be useful.

Even this is not accurate enough. Today I would add: Put your play into formal narratives, and I will help you and your classmates listen to one another. In this way, you will build a literature of images and themes, of beginnings and endings, of references and allusions. You must invent your own literature if you are to connect your ideas to the ideas of others. (1990, p. 18)

Paley explores how child-initiated activities in the classroom are opportunities for learning not just because children interact with objects and people, but because there is a teacher present who can prepare the environment for such learning, observe, and at times interact with children during their activities. For experiential activity to be a form of pedagogy, a teacher is necessary: a teacher who is conscious of what can be gained from the experiences and can guide children toward those benefits (McNamee, 2005).

American educator Judith Lindfors delineates some of the early childhood teacher’s roles as providing, learning, observing, and responding (1987). Her description of these roles provides a blueprint for implementing activity-based, experiential learning. As provider, the teacher ensures that there is space, materials, and time for children to engage in self-initiated activities. The teacher also provides a safe environment for children’s experimentation and exploration, including psychological support through acknowledgment of their choices. She provides questions and suggestions to spur, challenge, and extend their thinking about the objects, ideas, or people they are considering.

Lindfors’ “teacher as learner” (as opposed to “teacher as knower”) emphasizes the importance of uncovering children’s own interests and questions and following their thought processes. Listening is an essential skill to fulfill this role. As a learner, the teacher is continually challenged to rethink and refine her pedagogical approach.

Listening is closely related to observing—both yield rich insights about children’s paths of inquiry. When teachers observe, they seek to “read children’s behavior” (Lindfors 1987, p. 302) and find meaning in their actions and comments. The teacher as observer is viewing and interpreting the learning situation from the child’s point of view. Having observed, she is in a stronger position to assume the role of responder.

Responding often begins with a statement reflecting back to the children what the teacher is seeing—details about their choice of activity, their arrangement and use of materials, their affect while working. Teachers look for openings to ask questions, to find out if the child wants to think out loud or wants help with some aspect of the activity. It is a delicate balance between responding and intruding, but the boundaries are usually discussed and negotiated on an ongoing basis as part of the discourse patterns in classrooms where children customarily take initiative for learning. Responding as a teacher also includes commenting on children’s efforts in a way that provides emotional and intellectual validation for what they are trying to achieve and expands the possibilities inherent in their activity. Lindfors writes, “Now the response is to help, now to meet the child’s idea with a new idea, now to suggest, now to encourage, now to partner—always sensitive to the particular child at the particular moment” (1987, p. 306).

Activity-based, experiential learning does not mean that children can do anything they choose at any time. Likewise, for the teacher to carry out the role of pedagogical leader in this approach requires discipline and training. Lindfors argues that the role mirrors what family and community members do, intuitively and unconsciously, in the language-learning process outside of schools. The principles of adult guidance in out-of-school environments are similar to the role of the teacher in the experience-based classroom, where the knowing, judging teacher is replaced by the listening, learning teacher (1987).

American psychologist Barbara Rogoff looks at experiential learning beyond the classroom (2003). Focusing primarily on non-Western cultures, where teaching and learning are often embedded in activities in which younger members of the family and community participate alongside more mature and experienced members, she highlights the social and cultural dynamics that shape learning in and out of school. These dynamics usually involve fluctuating relationships of control, active work, talk, and experimenting as tasks get done, and learning likewise—learning that is both intentional as well as a by-product of the apprenticeships children have with elders in their families, communities and schools. Like Rogoff, American psychologist Michael Cole takes a sociocultural approach to the study of human development and education (1999) in a wide range of school and community settings. The work of Rogoff, Cole and their colleagues is helping to illuminate the broader principles of activity-based, experiential pedagogy that cross school, home, and community environments and provide the foundation for optimizing learning in each of these settings.

Further Readings: Bruner, J. (1977). Introduction. In B. Tizard and D. Harvey, eds. Biology and Play. London: Heinemann Medical Books. Cole, M. (1996). Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and society. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton. Gutek, G. (1991). Cultural foundations of education: a biographical introduction. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company. Koplow, L., ed. (1996). Unsmiling faces: How preschools can heal. New York: Teachers College Press. Lindfors, J. (1987). Children’s language and learning. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. McNamee, G. D. (2005). The one who gathers children: The work of Vivian Gussin Paley and current debates about how we educate young children. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education 25, 275-296. Montessori, M. (1962). The discovery of the child. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Press. Oldfield, L. (2001). Free to learn: Introducing Steiner Waldorf early childhood education. Gloucestershire: Hawthorn Press. Paley, V. G. (1981). Wally’s stories. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. New York: Oxford University Press. Weikart, D. P., L. Rogers, Adcock, C., and D. McClelland (1971). The cognitively oriented curriculum: a framework for preschool teachers. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Gillian D. McNamee