It’s About Love & The Whole-Child
Hundreds of sessions. Thousands of attendees. Countless topics. And, even a little early November snow. This 2018 NAEYC Annual Conference, my last as a member of the NAEYC Governing Board, was both eventful and nostalgic. Amongst all the content from presenters from a variety of backgrounds that addressed essential issues throughout the entire early learning spectrum, no message rang more clearly than that of the opening keynote presentation that took attendees behind the scenes of the documentary on the life of Mr. Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? What was the message?
“Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.”
Placing love at the heart of all relationships is common ground for anyone working in a field that is dedicated to serving children and families. Such a message that inspires us all to focus on the foundational elements of what we do is familiar to me on a personal level as well.
During presentations I deliver throughout the country and to many different people (e.g., legislators, superintendents, teachers, and families), I frequently start off by asking the audience to consider the following thought experiment:
Think about a child that you love. It could be your own child, a niece, a nephew, a grandchild, or a neighbor. Now, imagine you’re attending back-to-school night for this child. As you sit in his or her classroom, the teacher asks you, “What do you want for your child this year?”
I am often amazed that, no matter the state, context, or audience, the answers I receive are virtually the same. Participants respond much the same way that my wife and I responded when my daughter’s first grade teachers asked the question of us, both educators. We responded that we wanted our Sophia to
- Love learning,
- Ask good questions, and
- Help others.
Ironically enough, despite the desire to have our children perform well academically and to have a solid grasp of content, no audience member ever responded with the specific reading level that they want their child to be reading on at the end of kindergarten or first grade. While there’s nothing wrong with being aware of elements such as reading levels, even during the early years, it’s as if there is something more at the foundation and core that must be addressed alongside these academic elements.
For me, the operative word is “alongside” as our field unfortunately goes through periods of placing academic or content knowledge (e.g., literacy) in opposition to other types of knowledge or being (e.g., curious). Why is it important for these types of knowledge to coexist? First, there’s no way to truly pay attention to the education of the whole child unless we address these aspects alongside each other. According to the National Research Council (NRC 2008), there are five major developmental areas for young children:
- Language and literacy development,
- Cognition and general knowledge (including early math and scientific development),
- Approaches to learning,
- Physical well-being and motor development, and
- Social and emotional development.
Paying attention to all aspects of child development is precisely what we mean when we talk about educating the whole child. While there are times in our field when we debate whether academics or social development are better to emphasize in the early years, fortunately there were several sessions at the 2018 NAEYC Annual Conference that emphasized the balance that’s needed, e.g., the “In Defense of Whole-Child Learning” session. What’s more, for a field that is defined by practices that are developmentally appropriate, it’s worth noting exactly what “developmentally appropriate” means. Developmentally appropriate practices (DAP) require the following:
- Knowing about child development and learning,
- Knowing what is individually appropriate, and
- Knowing what is culturally important.
The words of Mr. Rogers encouraged us at the NAEYC conference to attune ourselves to what is fundamental.
Just as love is at the heart of all relationships, knowledge of DAP (i.e., child development, individual children, and cultural relevance) should be at the heart of our teaching.
Of course, paying attention to what is fundamental is difficult work. Again, the words of Mr. Rogers prove fruitful. During the opening session, Joanne Rogers, the wife of Mr. Rogers, quoted a line from a Mr. Rogers song to the packed hall and sang, “I’m proud of you. I’m proud of you. I hope that you’re as proud as I am proud of you.”