The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) believes two issues must be considered regarding early childhood education. First, we must understand how and why young children learn. Second, we must identify programs and learning experiences that apply this understanding of early childhood learning to effectively meet young children’s needs.
Current research on brain development emphasizes the importance of early stimulation in developing brain connections from birth. The Carnegie Task Force on Meeting the Needs of Young Children in 1994 issued a call for help in preparing children for learning when they enter school. This report states that “brain development is much more vulnerable to environmental influence than previously suspected and early environmental influence on brain development is long lasting.” Neurobiology research regarding normal brain function is revealing more about how children learn (Markezich 1996).
“Learning windows”—optimal times for learning at particular developmental stages—should be used to enhance understanding of science, mathematics, and technology in young children. Research findings have strong implications for developing effective early childhood education programs because “rich experiences produce rich brains” (Nash 1997).
Piaget’s theory of cognitive development was created in the 1920s, long before access to medical imaging technology and current brain research was available. The current national redirection of science and math teaching is grounded in this theory, which stresses the use of a teaching/learning cycle and explorations through the manipulation of objects and materials. “Developmentally appropriate practice”—a curriculum based on what is known about young children—should drive instruction (Clark 1996).
Research on children’s motivation to learn and their underachievement reveals that young children are full of curiosity and a passion for learning (Raffini 1993). If this passion changes from delight to drudgery, one in four of those students will leave school before graduating. A greater understanding of student motivation is needed, particularly as it relates to intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for learning.
Documentation and evaluation data on Head Start, Title I, and the Military Child Care System may reveal models for effective preschool education. Closing the developmental gap between preschool children who are mentally stimulated by their family and surroundings and those who are not stimulated should be a priority in preparing children for school. The importance of brain development and the opportunities for early childhood stimulation calls for well-designed preschool education for three-, four-, and five-year-olds. These programs may compensate for a child’s lack of stimulation in the previous years and months; they may also enhance less than stimulating home environments.
Cultural diversity and children with special needs are a particular challenge for early childhood education as developmental milestones are attained on a different schedule and in a different manner. If all children are to reach their potential, they must all be included in our concerns when we design and provide high-quality preschool educational opportunities.
Financing issues are always a concern. Local educational programming that is funded by grants and that receives special community support seems to be most effective: The stakeholders have more invested in the success of these programs. Educators’ top priority should be financial assistance for preschool programs that are working effectively to prepare students for learning.
As NSTA considers neurological research and its implications for preschool education, we recognize the need for making the most of these early childhood years through well-designed preschool programs that provide science, mathematics, and technology education.
Clark, J. V. (1996). Redirecting science education. Corwin Press, Inc.
Markezich, A. (1996). Learning windows and the child’s brain. Super Kids Educational Software Review. Knowledge Share LLC.
Nash, M. J. (1997). Fertile minds. Time, 149:5.
Raffini, J. P. (1993). Winners without losers: Structures and strategies for increasing student motivation to learn. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Fred Johnson served as president of the National Science Teachers Association from June 1997 through June 1998.
Copyright © 1999 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)