Challenging but achievable" is a phrase often heard in early childhood curriculum development today. It refers to developmental levels of activities, projects, and expectations in every classroom. When children are challenged by activities, they become immersed in understanding more about their world. This achievement fires their love for learning.

Appropriate Levels of Challenge

Children are most attentive and focused when they are involved in active learning-discovering new things with the guidance and support of a teacher who acts as a facilitator. However, if the challenges are too hard or complicated, children feel unsuccessful and frustrated. This erodes their confidence in their abilities, makes them not want to risk another try, and generally dims the light of excitement about school and learning.

Achievable is the operative word. When an activity is too complex or beyond a child's current understanding, play and learning become frustrating. When play (which is a child's work) is not fun, there is a chance the child might feel that he isn't smart or clever enough, and he will become a behavior problem.

Talk About It

Meet with your staff to talk about the challenging but achievable curriculum. Discuss children's needs to have a certain amount of control over their environment and how choices are the key to that control. With appropriate choices, children have the power to select or design a project or activity, accomplish the task, and move on to the next choice. This control makes learning exciting and challenging. It also absorbs even the most energetic child and focuses his energy on a productive activity or process.

Emphasize that the best way to create a challenging and achievable curriculum is to make sure that classrooms have materials and that teachers provide activities and projects that encourage different levels of interaction and use by the children. In a traditional classroom, where most children are in the same age group, teachers should provide several different levels of activities. In multi-age-grouped classrooms, it is imperative that activities span an even wider range of levels. An assortment of materials of differing complexities encourages children to tackle projects by themselves, with help from others, or as a helper to another child.

Balance Leads to Success

A balance of choices (child-initiated) and guided (or teacher-directed) activities provides children with the most advantageous combination for learning. For example, creative choices in a toddler room should include easel painting with large thick brushes, pasting with paper scraps and collage materials, and large thick crayons that are easy to grasp. Once children master pasting, glue can be added. When they master holding thick paintbrushes, smaller brushes can be introduced and later, watercolors. Encourage teachers to evaluate their curriculum plans to ensure that this important balance exists in their classrooms.

Remind teachers that matching and sorting games should begin with few pieces and only one characteristic, such as objects that are large or small or have two colors. After children master this activity, they can add more colors or more options such as several graduated sizes or objects with different characteristics.

Explain that projects must be designed the same way. A study of insects by young children may include a walking field trip, reading or studying various books, drawing or art projects, or discovering pictures of insects in newspapers, magazines, or gardening catalogs. Depending on the interests of the children, the project can grow in many different directions. Thoughtful teachers must guide curriculum or project webs that result from children's choices.

Strategies for Creating a Challenging but Achievable Curriculum

Creating a challenging but achievable curriculum rests on the ability to look closely and carefully analyze what is going on in the classroom. Suggest that teachers try some of the following strategies:

  • Observe and watch how children use activities. Do they put the activity away before they have accomplished the task or completed the game? How often is this activity selected? If it is not used several times per week, take it out and sit at a table or on the floor. When children ask what you are doing, show them and ask if they have ever chosen it. Ask why or why not.
  • Participate with a child or group as they use an activity or become involved in a project. Just being there and listening will help you extend the learning.
  • Watch how children of different age levels use activities. Appropriate and creative uses will tell you these materials and projects are on target. Inappropriate uses or non-use tells you to take them out for now. Wait a few months and try them again. If they still aren't used, donate them to another classroom.
  • Watch for a particular interest in topics that come from books you read in the classroom. Ask a few questions to see if the topic is really new and interesting. If so, integrate it into the classroom as soon as possible with the children's help.
  • Ask children what they want to learn and what they like to do. Listen and record their thoughts and then use these ideas to plan future curriculum.
  • Rotate unused or infrequently used activities with another classroom. Ask other teachers to do the same and you will extend the interest in both rooms.

Programs that are challenging and achievable are exhilarating and joyful places where learning happens for children and their families and teachers. Creating them is a journey that is fulfilling for everyone involved.