Learning to Look — Learning to See

Recently, while poking through my personal library of early learning resources, I ran across an interesting bit of work in Keene and Zimmerman’s 2007 2nd edition of Mosaic of Thought. At the beginning they quote Billy Collin’s poem First Reader which addresses how much children have seen and how many things they already know about before they are formally introduced to reading — confining their ‘looking’ to what’s on the page. Quoting the poem, ‘They wanted us to look but we had looked already,’ Keene and Zimmerman go on to talk about the real world of what the children they teach have looked at and seen before they go off to school.

Research in instructional strategies is pretty clear about the need to understand and help children access their prior knowledge. As important as this might be in elementary and secondary schools, its importance is magnified as we begin to introduce young children to the more formal ‘school’ aspects of learning. To be successful we need to consider three things: What have the children we work with looked at before they come to us; how do we attach their experience to the learning experiences we have planned; how do we capture that ability to ‘look’.

What have they ‘looked’ at: To maximize what children bring with them as they enter our programs we must know what their experiences have been. Where do they come from; where do they live; what are their houses and neighborhoods like? What are their families like—who lives in their house? What are their routines? What do they eat; where do they shop; how do they play; what do they do for fun? How is learning valued in the family? What are the real ‘realities’ of their everyday lives?

While it might be tempting to, for whatever reason, introduce young children to things to look at that are different from their everyday sights, it is ultimately counterproductive. We need to build around what they know–what items are in the stores where they shop; the equipment that’s in the park where they play; the people who populate their everyday lives. We need to go there; visit with the families; shop in the store to truly understand where our children are coming from to truly understand what they have ‘looked’ at before they come to us.

How do I use their experiences to build new knowledge: Once I have a clear idea about where my children have come from and their early experiences, I can build on those experiences as I introduce new information and experiences. I might ask during circle time, “Who’s ridden on a tractor?” “Who’s ever eaten a peach?” “Who’s been to the zoo?” following up with some questions bout what it felt like, looked and tasted like, what they saw. What questions do they have about the tractor, the peach, the zoo? Use their questions to begin exploring the new topic and, whether their questions were the questions you originally planned to address, make sure they are now included in your exploration of the topic—create experiences around those questions.

Ask questions during and after experiences.  “When we read the story did it make you think about other pets you’ve seen?”  “When you painted your picture of clouds did it make you think of other things you’ve seen in the sky?”  “When we ate the rice did you remember other food you’ve eaten that you liked?” Bringing out children’s prior knowledge and experiences in a variety of ways helps them build ‘schema’ — a continually developing picture of the world they live in. As they add to their ‘schema’ they are able to evaluate and sort information; make predictions and consider consequences; and make connections between topic areas and their own experiences. ‘Schema’ is what helps us make meaning from new information and experiences.

How do I teach children to ‘look’: Young children are natural information gatherers. Providing lots of experiences help them gather new information and examine it relevant to what they already have in their ‘schemas.’ Getting to the details of a topic might include everything from examining material with a magnifying glass — a physical way to get at details — to discussion and questions about the pictures in a book — to sharing ideas about how a character or another child might feel about something.

Often children will have favorite stories they want read over and over. Here is an opportunity to, over time, emphasize details—one time it might be the sequence of the things the mouse asked for in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Next time it might be examining the details of a few of the pictures that illustrate the mess made by the sequence of the story.

This article was contributed by Mary Perkins for the Early Childhood Express newsletter.