Dialogue on Early Childhood Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education

Fostering High Quality Programs

Partnerships Among Families, Early Childhood Educators, and Communities to Promote Early Learning in Science, Mathematics, and Technology

Heather B. Weiss

I don’t think our kids have what they need at the school. My granddaughter wants a computer; she wants to do a computer so bad.…I can never in a million years get this little girl a computer.…The schools here don’t supply this for the little ones.…That’s why I’m looking for a school where she will have computers every day at school.
(A very poor, urban grandmother raising her six-year-old granddaughter explains her plans to move in the next year.)

As this grandmother’s comment suggests, now is a very opportune time to launch a serious, major effort to forge partnerships among families, communities, and the full range of early childhood educators. These partnerships should focus more attention and resources on science, mathematics, and technology education for children under five years of age. Parents know that their children need knowledge and skills in these areas to succeed in the 21st century. This paper will

This strategy contains several key points. First, the goals and practices of developmentally appropriate early childhood education arguably overlap with the goals and processes of early science and math education. This will greatly facilitate partnerships.

Second, merely giving parents materials on how to teach children about science does not educate parents or involve the community. A materials-only approach is particularly ineffective with those families most in need of help (perhaps because they are less educated, geographically isolated, or poor), and it does not work that well with other parents, either. Personal interaction with families, special training for them, and other supports are also needed.

Third, the assumption that parents want to help their children and can do so must undergird any effort. Parents must be involved in order to create a viable strategy.

Fourth, it is important to take advantage of and build on existing systems for delivering both early childhood and science, mathematics, and technology (SMT) education, rather than create new or single-institution, isolated delivery systems. All communities already have agencies and institutions, sometimes linked to each other, that can or do promote SMT education. In the interest of developing a community-based strategy, these organizations could be encouraged to collaborate more with one another, with parents, and with other local providers of care and education for young children.

Fifth, a community strategy that involves parents and multiple agencies (schools, libraries, museums, science and nature centers, childcare centers, family resource centers, health clinics, etc.) is more likely to reach most young children in an effective, affordable, and sustainable way. Such a strategy is ambitious, requiring new collaborations and some additional resources at the community level. It also requires formative evaluation to develop and implement. Provisions should be made to assess the efficacy, cost-effectiveness, and sustainability of a few community-based efforts such as those recommended in this paper before these efforts are expanded.

weiss1.jpg (12174 bytes)Sixth, attention must be paid to creating the national (and perhaps state) infrastructure necessary to support community-based efforts. This strategy includes building relationships among the various professional communities that have something to offer early childhood education: early childhood educators; educators in science, mathematics, and technology; family support professionals; and other professional groups whose community institutions bear on early childhood education (libraries, museums, science centers, the media, etc.). Also essential are a clearinghouse for innovative materials and approaches and for information about effective models and practices; grants to stimulate community-based work and collaboration; and provision for the ongoing evaluation of any strategy that is implemented.

Current Opportunities and Challenges

Increasingly, policymakers and the general public are coming to understand the critical importance of children’s early development to their later learning. The president, Congress, governors, and state legislators are now willing to invest in new and enriched early childcare and education. The time is right to create new partnerships among parents, early childhood educators, SMT educators, and related community groups and institutions that aim to support early childhood development. The needs and interests of these various groups are converging due to a number of factors, including the following:

The likely result is more federal, state, and local support for early childhood services and a growing system of services to foster young children’s interest and skills in science, mathematics, and technology.

Establishing new federal and state early childhood programs and expanding the existing programs—for example, Georgia’s new universal Pre-K program and North Carolina’s Smart Start—also increase the number of stable systems that deliver early childhood education and the number of organized and ready partners for SMT education. Partnerships between those who care for young children and SMT educators are also becoming more feasible because the two groups share many goals and views about what constitutes developmentally appropriate practices. To wit, each is committed to creating learning environments that foster young children who are curious, eager, questioning, and intent on finding out about the world through observations and experiments. Partnerships between early childhood educators and SMT educators seem most likely to develop because the emphasis on SMT is integral to the definition of high-quality early childhood education. Working together, early childhood educators and SMT educators could substantially enrich the learning environment (including the community) for young children.

Because there is not, nor is there likely to be, a single, universal delivery system for early childhood services (akin, for example, to the public school), one could argue that it will be very difficult to reach all or most young children with early education that emphasizes science, mathematics, and technology. The lack of a single system, however, arguably provides an opportunity to create a rich array of supports through partnerships within a community. These partnerships can create a more intense, varied, and diverse set of learning opportunities for young children. Most communities now have some sort of formal or informal early childhood coordinating group. The challenge for national, state, and local professional groups interested in early childhood and SMT education is to identify and work with the coordinating group and get its help in enlisting other relevant groups in a communitywide effort. Some of the agencies, institutions, and groups that can be tapped to create a more comprehensive strategy for promoting SMT education within a community include:

These types of community agencies and groups create a learning environment for young children. Their involvement, or lack thereof, will influence the intensity, creativity, reach, comprehensiveness, and effectiveness of any SMT education effort. In a community-based effort, such groups and institutions can come together to create SMT education programs and to share materials and resources.

Lessons from Community-Based Initiatives for Parent Education and Family Support

Research shows that young children learn more from opportunities to experience, shape, and understand their environment than they do from their efforts to master discrete facts or skills. In addition, a child’s disposition for learning develops through interactions with his or her parents, family members, and other caregivers and through experiences such as storytime at the library, trips to the zoo or museum, a show on The Discovery Channel, and the like. Children’s early learning, including the precursors for learning science, mathematics, and technology such as curiosity and observation, occurs through a dynamic process involving child, family, and community influences. This research suggests that SMT education efforts should include all the key players in children’s lives, including parents, providers of early childcare and education, and relevant community organizations.

weiss2.jpg (11418 bytes)Now that developmental research has substantiated the critical role that early parenting and community supports play in children’s early development and later readiness to learn at school, parents are struggling to balance their efforts to be good parents with their work and the other demands on their time. There is much evidence that many families, constrained by busy schedules or tight budgets or both, are under a great deal of stress. The same can be said of the web of community institutions that work with families and young children: Time and money are often scarce, even as demand for services is increasing. Many communities struggle, therefore, with the question of how to create systems of early childcare and education that recognize the importance of parent and community involvement and the constraints on would-be participants. This overall challenge is critical to consider in building parent and community partnerships to support young children. It is also critical to understand that any successful effort will require some new and carefully targeted resources.

Past efforts to work with the parents of young children provide many important lessons. Many of today’s stable and effective programs for involving parents in early childhood education were created after earlier efforts had failed, for example, programs that no parents ever joined or the ones that they quickly deserted. Many of these failures were didactic programs that did not offer parents what they wanted when they could use it. Years of research on implementation and practice-based experience suggest the following lessons.

Key Components of a National Strategy to Support Community-Based Early SMT Learning

This paper has argued that now is an opportune time to launch a major effort to forge partnerships among families, communities, and other concerned groups that will focus more attention and resources on science, mathematics, and technology learning in the early years of childhood. To stimulate debate about what such an effort might look like, some of the key design features of a major initiative are outlined in the following text:

References and Bibliography

Dunst, C. (1994). Key characteristics and features of community-based family support programs. Commissioned Paper. Chicago, IL: Family Resource Coalition.

Galinsky, E., and Weissbourd, B. (1992). Family-centered child care. Yearbook in early childhood education: Issues in child care 3, eds. B. Spodek and O.N. Sarcho. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lopez, M.E., and Hochberg, M. (1993). Paths to school readiness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.

Powell, D. (1991). Early childhood as a pioneer in parent involvement and support. In The care and education of America’s young children: Obstacles and opportunities, ed. S. L. Kagan, 91–109. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Schultz, T., Lopez, M. E., and Hochberg, M. (1996). Early childhood reform in seven communities: Front-line practice, agency management, and public policy. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education.

Weiss, H., and Harvard Family Research Project. (1993). Building villages to raise our children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.

Heather B. Weiss is director of the Harvard Family Research Project

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Copyright 1999 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)