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Learning to Learn: Early Childhood Experiences with Process Skills

He was quite interested in his child’s welfare. As a matter of fact, the young father of one of our kindergarten children had taken a day off from his job in order to come to school to discuss a trip he was planning. As he explained his desire to take his daughter out of school for six weeks, he smiled apologetically and said, “She won’t miss too much, will she? After all, it’s only kindergarten.”

This parent’s attitude about kindergarten, while misguided, is not uncommon. Many parents are not fully cognizant of the important role that pre-schools and kindergartens play in a child’s development, which may explain why fewer than half a dozen states support mandatory kindergarten. Yet, it is during the first six years of life that children learn and acquire new behaviors at the fastest rate of their lives. While the brain of a newborn weighs only about one pound, a six year old’s brain has acquired its full three-pound adult weight. Most of this increase in weight comes from the growth of brain cells, particularly neurons — the cells that receive, store, and transmit thoughts and memory. Current brain research indicates that a child who lives in a stimulating environment during these crucial six years will actually develop more neurons than children who are deprived of sensory stimulation. Because the first six years are so important in a child’s development, preschools and kindergartens are much more than frills. They play a pivotal part not only in a child’s future school success, but in creating the brain’s ability to learn throughout a lifetime. Examining the goals of a typical kindergarten curriculum should provide museum educators with clues as to the complementary part their institutions can perform in this early learning process.

  • Holidays and special events. Among the goals for pre-school and kindergarten children is learning about the existence and variety of holidays and special events of the society in which they live. In the United States, in October, for example, many kindergarten children learn fire safety rules during National Fire Prevention Month. They visit the local fire station, and perhaps, they also visit a nearby history museum to see “old” fire engines and to compare the old to the new. An activity at the museum might give them the experience and excitement of participating in a bucket brigade using plastic buckets and cardboard water drops.
  • Living things. In science, young children learn about the care, handling, feeding, and preservation of living organisms using classroom aquaria and gerbil habitats. They learn to care for their own pets, and, when they visit a zoo or nature center, they experience the thrill of seeing non-domesticated animals. A docent shows them how the zoo cares for these animals, and they see that all animals have similar needs. Later, when they learn that some clothing is made of wool, they will remember the oily softness of the sheep in the petting zoo.
  • Colors and shapes. Preschools and kindergartens devote time to teaching youngsters the names of colors and of simple geometric shapes. When they visit an art museum or gallery, they see how artists use these elements to create images, tell stories, and transmit feelings. They can make their own art in response to their experience with colors or shapes, or any of the other basic elements of art.
  • Important people. Young children are also taught about some of the important people in their community that help others. Perhaps they enjoy a classroom visit from a police officer and a nurse. They might also learn about another special group of community helpers called “volunteers.” They see parents serving as volunteers and helping in their schools, and they meet with volunteer docents at a local museum or historic site.

As essential as it is for children to have experiences that transfer aspects of our shared culture, early childhood education has an even more important responsibility. Most quality kindergarten and pre-school programs provide opportunities for children to develop process skills — those skills that enable a child to learn. The learning of process skills is heavily dependent upon a multiplicity and variety of experiences, and is an important reason why museums, historic houses, zoos, botanical gardens, and nature centers should supplement even the best of school environments. It is also why serving this audience should be considered educationally productive by the hosting institutions.

  • Social studies process skills. Among the major goals of a kindergarten curriculum is teaching children how to get along with each other and function in a group. This goal is part of the social studies curriculum, but it need not be confined only to visits to history museums or historic houses. This goal, and the related goal of teaching children to work together to solve problems, are vital parts of any class trip. An art museum that allows its youngest visitors to create a mural, collage, or other group project based on the theme of the visit (animals, people, colors, shapes, textures, etc.) is helping those visitors to reach this goal. The visit itself, separate from any content, involves staying in line, raising your hand, taking turns, sharing — all rules that make it possible for the group to learn.

* Science process skills. The process skills of the science curriculum are also applicable to any museum. Observing, comparing, predicting, and drawing reasonable conclusions are skills as easily developed in a history museum as in a zoo, science museum, or nature center. Kindergarten children who eat the apples they dried in a re-created pioneer farm won’t understand the time concepts necessary to know when such food preservation techniques were necessary. They will, however, remember the experience whenever they eat a fresh apple. They have also learned some important concepts about moisture, and they will be able to make predictions about other foods based on this experience.

  • Language arts process skills. Language arts skills are naturals for all museums. Learning to listen is a major focus of the kindergarten language arts curriculum. Do note, however, that teaching children to listen is not the same as talking to children! Museum docents can help young visitors learn to listen by asking them to recall details or story sequences, by helping them construct visual images, by role playing, and by making listening an active pastime.
  • Mathematical process skills. The math curriculum, too, can be enhanced by a visit to the museum or other such facility. As kindergarten children develop their understanding of numbers, they learn to sort, classify, and compare objects. They make and discern patterns, and they learn to estimate. All of these process skills can be developed in a museum, whether the child is comparing the number of baby and adult animals at the zoo or finding circles in an art gallery or museum.

Process skills teach youngsters how to learn, and how to respond appropriately and effectively to a variety of situations. Simply focusing on subject matter content, without teaching process skills, does not equip children to deal with new situations, or to become independent learners. Museums (which are important conduits of culture and, as such, are vital components of a good preschool or kindergarten program for that reason) are rich environments for teaching process skills. This is why, when kindergarten and pre-school teachers go to the considerable effort of taking their class on a museum visit, they are not looking for a way to “kill time.” They are hoping to offer students yet another experience that will enable and enhance their future ability to learn.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Learning to Learn: Early Childhood Experience with Process Skills,” The Docent Educator 3.2 (Winter 1993): 18-19.

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