When most of us hear the term "teaching", images of detailed teacher plans, exact objectives and teachers in control of the "learning" come to mind. Indeed, intentional, directive instruction is an important meaning of teaching for students of all ages. But a complementary form of teaching, equally important, is one we call "open-ended teaching" and it refers to experiences that are also carefully planned but with characteristics that invite children to take the lead in exploring ideas, solving meaningful problems and develop their creativity. "Open-ended" means teachers and parents plan rich and interesting activities, materials, environments and projects that have many possible outcomes for children’s learning.
In early childhood, open-ended activity is very important for several reasons. First, researchers and educational leaders (Barbara Bowman of the Erick Institute, Sue Bredekamp of NAEYC, Lillian Katz, Univ of Illinois) believe these kinds of activity address many areas of development and learning simultaneously rather than focusing on a specific and more narrow skill. For example, a writing center filled with pens, markers, paper, stencils, stamps, scissors, staplers, envelopes placed near the housekeeping dramatic play center but without a specific agenda becomes a place to practice letter knowledge and fine motor control but also to "write" recipes, lists and to send pretend messages to friends and family, a social experience that supports pretend play and real reasons for writing. Compare this to the more narrow practice involved in filling out a worksheet prepared by teachers.
A second reason to plan open-ended activity is to support all the diversity that exists in a group of young learners. Developmentally, a group of four year olds can range greatly in terms of what they are ready and able to do. Add to that, the diversity that comes from sources like culture, language, race, social class and the presence of disabilities. A teacher must plan for all learners in the group in ways that allow each one to work and develop at his or her own level and pace in meaningful ways.
Lastly, we are still learning about the many potentials that are developing in early childhood. Howard Gardner of Harvard University has proposed that we think in terms of "multiple intelligences" rather than a single idea of intelligence. In his work, he identifies at least 8 kinds of intelligence that include artistic, musical, physical and social intelligence along with the more traditionally described intelligences that relate to language, math and science. Early childhood curriculum experiences should be inclusive; teachers should invite children to participate in learning tasks that further develop their strengths and expand their potentials. Open-ended materials provide the vehicle to support all areas of children’s developing intelligences and skills that will prepare them for success in school.
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