It's 8:30 A.M. on the first day of school. The children arrive, tentatively entering the room. Some stay close to their parents, while others wave goodbye and head straight for a learning center. The noise level shifts to a warm "hum" as children discover the joys of their new classroom. "Look there's my cubbie!" "Teacher, can I build with these blocks?" "Wow, I see a shell in this box!" The day has just started and already children are beginning to be captivated and inspired by their environment.

Children innately love learning. Very early on, children begin exploring their bodies, their capabilities, and the world around them. They may not be thinking to themselves, "I am learning," but that is exactly what they are doing as they investigate everything they come in contact with. Young children know how to take the smallest observation, object, or surprise and turn it into a learning experience. They employ investigative techniques without even knowing how to define them as such. They are curious and want to find out the what, where, how, and why of everything around them. As the children above discovered in their new classroom, there is so much to experience at school-particularly when the teacher has created an environment that reflects their interests, learning styles, families, and cultures.

Reflections On Teaching

We nurture a child's love of learning by expanding on his or her own inquisitive nature. As early childhood teachers, we know that teaching means much more than lessons and standards. We're responsible for creating an environment of support that allows children to develop their own ideas, express their feelings, take risks, make choices, and most of all, grow to be strong, thinking individuals.

I remember thinking, during my first year as a teacher, that I had to be "teaching" all me time. I probably talked those children to sleep! I quickly learned from them that some of the best teaching is done when you stop teaching and follow a child's lead. They taught me how to listen and watch, to ask questions, and to be real. I quickly realized that to be an effective model for learning I had to be authentic regarding my own thoughts, feelings, and values. What happened when I shifted gears and did this? I fell in love with learning in a way that I never experienced as a child or an adult! The children taught me the magic of play, whether it's building a rocket out of blocks, pretending to be a princess, or exploring what a bullfrog does. So, yes, we do teach children to love learning, but we do this by being an observer, a supporter, a facilitator, and always a good role model!

Learning: A Lifelong Process

Learning is not just teaching children to the standards. It is a process, a series of experiences that lead to the great "aha!" moments of life. Interestingly, when a sample of adults were asked if they loved learning in school, most answered that the worry of getting the answer right and doing what the teacher expected (and later passing a test) took the joy out of learning. Many said that they learned to love learning by exploring things on their own at home, outdoors, or later when they got to college.

In her presentation to the Scholastic Early Childhood Summit, renowned early childhood educator Lilian Katz spoke about the need to change the teaching emphasis from an "industrial model" of outcomes based on the standards to "standards of experiences" that all children should have. She went on to say that these standards of experiences need to focus on engaging children in investigating worthwhile topics that provide experiences that are intellectually challenging, that give children a sense of belonging and relationship, and that ultimately encourage children to have confidence in their own intellect. If we "rephrase the goals of education," we can help children learn how to lead a satisfying life.

Meet the Challenge

So how do we take on this task? We look first to ourselves as teachers and then to our environment to be sure that we create a classroom climate that encourages investigation and collaboration. We foster a love of learning not so much by the special materials or activities, but through a responsive, inquisitive attitude. When we provide plenty of time for open-ended, constructive play every day, we create opportunities for children to explore the joy of learning. At the same time, we can extend children's learning experiences by engaging children in meaningful conversations about their activities. With great open-ended questions and discussions, we can invite children to develop their own ideas and construct their own learning by expanding, clarifying, and developing their thinking. It's important to note that it is not just children's engagement in activities that is important. It is our skillful and conscious interactions with children that constructs knowledge and builds a love of learning.

It's Up to You!

You are the important ingredient in teaching a child to love learning. In fact, you are the cornerstone of the classroom environment. No matter if you are in a tiny basement classroom or a huge sunny space, it is your interactions with children that turn any place into a loving, learning lab. As you well know, there are times to observe children, times to encourage them, times to interact with them, and times to model learning. Like the pure act of discovery, your role is always changing.

As observer, you listen and watch. The perceptive teacher is aware of children's interactions with one another and with materials. She uses this information to incorporate children's interests into the daily program. By respecting children's processes, the teacher fosters a sense of independence in children that builds confidence and skills.

As a supporter, you encourage and accept The compassionate teacher inspires a classroom tone that welcomes children's original ideas, accepts all contributions equally, and at the same time is sensitive to individual abilities. In this safe and secure atmosphere, children can feel free to express their ideas without fear of being wrong, or of not being taken seriously. The teacher uses praise to build on children's strengths and abilities so that all children see themselves as successful learners.

As a facilitator, you inspire and assist. The aware teacher knows when to ask an open-ended question or add a new material to inspire children to move to higher levels of thinking and problem solving. The teacher invites children to think creatively, fluently, and critically with question starters such as: "How many ways can you...?" or "What will happen if...?"

As a model, you demonstrate and surprise. The inspired teacher registers delightful surprise in learning from the simplest events and the smallest mistakes. The excitement a teacher shows when she finds a beautiful bug on the playground, or discovers how to balance a block, demonstrates the joy of discovering and learning. In addition, a willingness to show children that a teacher can make mistakes-then can ask the class for help in solving the resulting problem-can make children feel helpful and important. At the same time, they learn that making an error is not a "bad thing" and is an important part of the learning process.

Arranging Your "I Love Learning" Classroom

"Create learning centers that foster independence, yet encourage respect for materials and space. Keep materials interesting, with clearly marked containers for children to return those materials at cleanup time."

The way you arrange your setting has a strong effect on how strongly children fall in love with learning and life. If you strictly control how children use space and spend time, you limit their chances to make decisions and experiment with materials and ideas. But, at the same time, you want children to have a clear understanding of your expectations for using materials and space. To create this delicate balance, keep the following in mind:

Foster a sense of identity and independence

  • Set up the physical environment so that it fosters independence and identity with picture/word cues and signs, and name/symbol labels on personalized spaces for children, such as cubbies, sign-in boards, and center markers.
  • Place clear containers on easy-to-reach shelves for self-service activities in each of your learning centers.
  • Put anything you do not want children to use freely out of reach, but keep plenty of materials for free exploration available in well-marked containers.
  • Encourage children to use materials freely and even interchangeably throughout the room during activity time. Be sure they know where each item belongs when it's time to clean up.

Build a sense of safety and security

  • Provide toys, books, and photos that children may be familiar with from a former class or from home.
  • Define spaces with center markers and dividers so that children have the security of knowing where they are and what they are supposed to do there.
  • Create comfort with quiet, soft places for children to rest and cuddle with a stuffed toy and a good book.
  • Invite parents to stay, visit, and participate. It is amazing how secure children feel when they see a relationship unfolding between their parent and teacher.

Create centers that cultivate problem solving

  • Use play furniture and storage shelves to organize your room into workable, welcoming learning centers.
  • Imagine that you are setting up an apartment in a loft. Where would you put the kitchen (dramatic play), den (blocks), and library (book/meeting area)? Instead of putting all your tables in me center of the room, and learning centers around the edges, consider cutting the space up into these inviting "mini-rooms" that feel more like a home.
  • Place a limit on numbers of children working in each center. It's much easier for children to practice negotiating and resolving conflicts with just a few other children at one time. Small, well-defined learning centers with a limit on the numbers of children playing at a given time help children learn important social skills.

Reflect the faces and cultures of the families

  • Invite families to send in photos of family and friends. These photos help build an awareness of the diversity of the classroom community.
  • Add children's books, dramatic-play and cooking materials, photos, and maps that represent the cultures and countries of your classroom family.
  • Invite families to share the arts and crafts, photos, and maps of their culture. Ask them to come and share a special skill or interest with the children.

Provide stimulation and challenge

  • A wide variety of open-ended, multi-sensory materials make a strong statement to children that you respect and appreciate their individual learning styles.
  • Keep in mind the need for materials that interest and inspire visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic learners.
  • "Change the variable" by adding just one material in a center periodically so that children have new items to experiment with and use. Centers can become too familiar and predictable. By adding just one new thing to a center, you can challenge children to think of new ways to work there.

Inject beauty every day

  • Add one piece of beauty every day to your classroom setting. Studies show that the aesthetics of color, beauty, and nature in the classroom have a strong, positive impact on children's behavior.
  • Try creating a space for beauty in the room. Each day, provide beauty in the form of nature (a plant, leaf, flower) or art (a picture, photo, sculpture, quilt, box).
  • Keep clutter away. Children can be overstimulated by messy piles of papers, toys, and books.

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart What Children Need (PDF)