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Rethinking Early Education, & Why It Matters

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Guest post by Kimberlee Kiehl

As I sit working in my D.C. apartment, shut out of our school at the Smithsonian because we are deemed "non-essential," I am thinking about how this phrase in many ways applies to how we see early learning in this country overall.

This is my second go round in early childhood. I spent 12 years as a tenured professor teaching early childhood classes and running a lab school and then left the hallowed halls to be the COO at a large science museum. I came back to my first love -- early childhood -- because I believe that the experience we provide children during these early years is perhaps the most important work there is. And when I say "work," I mean everything that happens not only in schools like mine, but also in homes with parents and nannies interacting with children every day.

After being away from the field professionally for 12 years I returned last year to a world that essentially looks the same as it did before I left. Sure, there is more conversation at a national level about the importance of the early years; there have been recent news stories about young women with college degrees choosing to be nannies; and President Obama has started to talk about this issue. Overall, though, not much has changed. We still pay these professionals way below what we pay K-12 teachers; we still call it "day care" even though we spend our time educating children rather than caring for days; and we still have very little respect for those adults who choose to spend their days in the company of young children. I've been thinking about this issue for years and I think that in order to really make any change we need to address four fundamental underlying beliefs that we seem to have in this country.

A major piece of the puzzle is the fact that anyone can become a parent. It doesn't require special training or a license. And because young children for so many years were home with their parents or other family members (and many still are), at some unconscious level we believe that anyone can care for young children. At the same time, we know that some children have better outcomes than others, most often based on the types of interactions they had during these early years. But, instead of thinking that what these good parents, good teachers and good nannies do everyday are things that should be shared with adults that are struggling with young children, we do the reverse and think that anyone can do this work. I don't think we do this consciously, but I do think it is an important underlying belief that affects our thinking. Once you get to Kindergarten, the person teaching your children has to have a license; from then on, we don't see this work as something just anyone can do. It is time to rethink how we view these early years and realize how very important the work these adults are doing really is.

We don't value the importance of play. In our heads, the real learning comes when you hit the desks and books of a real school. But the research shows that what happens at those desks later in life is very much linked to all that play that happened earlier. And so we don't value what the adults do during these years because, in part, we don't value what the children do during these years.

We don't see the adults who work with young children as "teachers." Sure, we give lip service to the idea that a parent is a child's first teacher, but we don't really see that in the same way we see K-12 teachers. Every adult who interacts with a young child is teaching and that teaching should be seen as being just as valuable as any other kind of teaching. My experience with the schools in Reggio Emilia showed that this was one of the key differences between their society and ours; their community values the experiences of children before they get to school just as much as they value the ones that start in Kindergarten.

We don't see early education as a community issue but rather as a personal, family issue. We can pay K-12 teachers higher salaries than early childhood educators, both in schools and in homes, because we have tax dollars to support these salaries. In early childhood the salaries come mainly out of the pockets of the parents. And parents who want to stay home in our culture get no respect either -- they get very little paid time off and often have to make the choice to step out of the workforce. There would be outrage in this country if we saw K-12 education as something a parent had to pay for out of their own pocket, but what happens in those classrooms is so tied to what happened before the children got there, and we don't give that fact a second thought.

Certainly, these are huge cultural issues not easily solved. But I believe it is time to talk about them because only by making them visible can we begin to address them. My teachers with the children in our schools, my daughter who has chosen to be a nanny as a career, and my daughter-in-law who has chosen to be at home with my one-year-old granddaughter are all doing important work -- they are growing brains. These brains will one day run this country. These brains will make decisions that have an effect on each one of us. These brains will be used for all those professions that we so value in our culture. Yet until we start to address our biases and change the way we see the experiences that happen in these early years, and the people who make these experiences possible, we will be stunted in our progress.

It's time to make progress. And we can begin by getting over the idea that early childhood experiences are "non-essential."

Kim Kiehl is the Executive Director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center in Washington, DC.

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