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What is Developmentally Appropriate?

This past month, ISTP hosted a training by the Gesell Institute (http://www.gesellinstitute.org). A large portion of the training focused on an overview of developmental ages and stages, which was a wonderful reminder and confirmation that ISTP is giving students what they need in an early years program.

Dr. Arnold Gesell founded the Yale Child Study Center in 1911, which eventually led to the establishment of the Gesell Institute in 1950. The center has been central in researching young children and guiding best practices in education. A nation-wide study was conducted in 2008-2010 to see if and how today’s children have changed, and to reassess the “ages and stages” of development that Dr. Gesell had established. It determined that children still go through the same developmental patterns at the same ages. The Harvard Education Letter’s article is a nice summary of the findings http://hepg.org/hel/article/479. While children still develop at the same pace and in the same direction, the expectations of society have changed, and it can be difficult to find a balance. Many American schools have pushed reading into Kindergarten, but 6 years old is the age at which the majority of children are developmentally ready to read. This has resulted in some children struggling with Kindergarten because they aren’t ready for what kindergarten asks of them – not because they aren’t smart or putting in great effort, but because they just aren’t ready. In the same way that there is a range of time in which children get their first teeth, walk, or speak, there is a range for when students are ready for various types of academic learning, and the Gesell findings have held true over a century.IMG_3734

In Gesell’s theory of development, he found that children go through “consistent, sequential, and predictable patterns of growth and development.” While a child’s developmental age may differ somewhat from their chronological age, he or she will still go through all of the stages. And to maximize a child’s growth and development, Gesell research findings strongly promote the development of the whole child – cognitive, physical, language, and social-emotional. In today’s world, cognitive and language are emphasized in school, but play and physical activity are also essential. Development cannot be pushed or rushed – it happens when a child is ready, and undue stress will only create anxiety and other long-term ramifications.

The developmental stages, incorporating Gesell as well as other child development theorists, spiral and build each upon the next. Children go through stages of equilibrium and disequilibrium – where the world seems topsy-turvy, then gets sorted out, only to be shaken up again. In reviewing each of these developmental ages, we were pleased to see that this research reinforces certain choices and approaches that are in place at ISTP. In our Early Years Program, the curricula are designed to be developmentally appropriate while also reinforcing language acquisition and therefore allowing students to learn skills when they are most ready.

IMG_2826A few hallmarks of a typical three-year-old include:
• Likes to use crayons, markers, and manipulate small play materials
• Has greatly increased vocabulary and ability to use language
• Has give-and-take conversations with adults and other children
• Likes to make friends; likes to share sometimes, but not always
• Loves music, singing, and nursery rhymes
• Is very interested in books with simple plots; shows and increased attention span
• Plays much more imaginatively with dolls, blocks, and other toys
• Delights in locomotion; moves more nimbly, coordinating total body more smoothly

All of these attributes fit easily into the daily life of a Nursery class at ISTP. Our curricula capitalize on these aspects, and the readiness of 3 year olds to be increasingly comfortable in a school environment – learning the rules, socializing, creating, and understanding themselves within a group and physical space. Of course, there will be a variety of ages and stages within one classroom, but there are some overall ways of being that teachers can expect.

A few hallmarks of a typical four-year-old include:
• Draws, colors, paints with more detail; uses whole arm movement
• Requires strong limits to be protected from out-of-bounds tendencies
• Loves physical activity and outdoor play; solves problems with their bodies
• Asks many questions but is not interested in long answers
• Loves big words, silly sounds, and nonsense rhymes
• Has an expansive nature, always ready for something new
• Has a vivid imagination that leads to dramatic play
• Loves books and especially appreciates humorous stories and complex illustrations
• Is interested in simple games and enjoys the process of circle activities that combine singing and movementIMG_2790

In these attributes, the PK classroom comes to mind, with longer, more involved circle times, plenty of gross motor activities balanced with more fine motor skills, constant questioning and discovery, and expanded imagination in stories and play.

A few hallmarks of a typical five-year-old include:
• Has well-developed gross-motor skills; enjoys skipping, jumping and climbing
• Has increased control over pencil grasp
• Has a desire to finish what is started
• Experiences an explosion in language learning and shows interest in new words
• Knows that words represent ideas and objects; likes to discuss this
• Asks how, when, what, and especially why questions and is interested in the response
• Wants to have things go smoothly and is a much easier playmate
• Has more of an understanding of the world and may accurately judge what he or she can and cannot do
• Vision is very focal, but still needs time to develop better tracking
• Exhibits increasingly creative and constructive abilities; enjoys hands-on learning

IMG_4083Kindergarten takes advantage of these qualities to become a bit more structured, but still allow ample time for necessary play, creativity, and movement. It capitalizes on the thirst for knowledge and exploration, and takes students on thematic journeys and projects that gradually give more independence to each student.

Overall, ISTP offers a balanced approach to the early years, with movement and play integrated with more cognitive- and language-based experiences. As we refine and adjust the curriculum, we use the question of “what is developmentally appropriate?” to guide our choices.

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