Meeting children ‘where they are’ has been a cornerstone of developmentally appropriate practice in language and early literacy in early childhood. The field typically describes the phrase to include three aspects of learning:
(i) early childhood educators need to be attuned to children as unique individuals (ii) they need to be aware of basic child development principles
(iii) they need to be responsive to the social and cultural context in which they live.
Frequently described as the Goldilocks principle (Kidd, Piantadosi & Aslin, 2012), the understanding is that children are likely to attend to events that are neither too simple nor too complex, according to their current representation of the world. Consequently, the idealized task or experience should be challenging but achievable to promote children’s progress and engagement.
Nevertheless, here’s the trap. Although few would quibble with gearing early literacy experiences to the child’s timing of growth and family background, there will be considerable variation in the skill-set children bring to school. Some are coming to preschool with thousands of hours of being read to, knowing their letters, colors and numbers while others have not had these experiences. Many children are likely to differ in their personal language and literacy histories as well as in their family’s ability to provide the resources needed to promote their educational well-being.
Herein lies the trap- what constitutes as developmentally appropriate practice for educating young children might be subject to multiple interpretations. Differences in children’s initial skill-set, for example, could become a rationale for consigning some children early on to a 'pedagogy of poverty’, an instructional regime of low-level content, rules and routines, with the notion that what might be ‘achievable’ is basic skills. Those with greater background knowledge, on the other hand, might be considered ready to receive an instructional regime that challenges them to achieve with activities that involve questioning, discovering, arguing and collaborating. Taken to its logical conclusion, such ‘developmentally appropriate practices’ could actually perpetuate the achievement gap rather than ameliorate it.
We take a very different approach in the Knowledge Network. We view all children as highly capable learners and believe that content-rich experiences that engage children’s minds can accelerate their development. In our work, we’ve seen time and again that engaging children in rich content experiences—learning about wild weather; space, taking care of your environment, etc…provides opportunity for them to share their personal and collective experiences.