Active Learning! Is It the Way Children Learn Best?

* Italicized portions taken from Angela Oswalt’s MSW on Jean Piaget, January, 2008

“Seat learning” as it is sometimes called in mainstream schools may not be best for your child. It seems homeschooling parents have a head start on transforming their children’s education from a passive and often boring format to an active, lively, and relevant one. Interweaving schooling with life can be a recipe for success. Children do tend to resist lessons that are dry and abstract, but come to life, so to speak, when lessons engage their interest and curiosity.

* “Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1990) created a cognitive-developmental stage theory that described how children’s ways of thinking develop as they interact with the world around them. Infants and young children understand the world much differently than adults do, and as they play and explore, their mind learns how to think in ways that better fit with reality. Piaget’s theory has four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational
It’s often difficult to remember as adults how we felt and interacted with the world as children. But that very remembering can be beneficial, to both our children and ourselves. The immediacy with which children view the world recedes as they grow up. But it’s that very ingredient, direct contact with their experience, that insures their life-long success in learning. So lessons should be planned, not as one step removed and abstract, but direct and engaging, while tuning in to that wonderful, spontaneous immediacy.

* “During the sensorimotor stage, which often lasts from birth to age two, children are just beginning to learn how to learn. Though language development, and thus thought, does begin during this time, the more major tasks occurring during this period involve children figuring out how to make use of their bodies. They do this by experiencing everything with their five senses, hence ‘sensory,’ and by learning to crawl and then walk, point and then grasp, hence, ‘motor.’ During the preoperational stage, which often lasts from ages two though seven, children start to use mental symbols to understand and to interact with the world, and they begin to learn language and to engage in pretend play.”

What a gift in these rushed and hectic times to provide an old-fashioned nursery school and kindergarten experience for our children! As Piaget says, until age seven the child’s most effective medium for learning is play. It does take a lot of effort on our part because of the busy lives we live, to give our young children this time to gain true strength in body, mind, and spirit through play, and learning what the world is all about by lovingly observing their parents or other adults as they go about their daily lives.

* “In the concrete operational stage that follows, from ages seven through eleven, children gain the ability to think logically to solve problems and to organize information they learn. However, they remain limited to considering only concrete, and not abstract, information because at this stage the capability for abstract thought isn’t well developed yet.”

Here we return to the need for active, direct, participatory learning. Rudolf Steiner’s methods and theory of Waldorf Education parallel much of Piaget’s theories. Because of children’s ability to think logically at age seven, teachers and/or parents may mistakenly assume that they are ready to take on intellectual information. Instead, during Piaget’s concrete operational stage, new concepts are best brought to each child with care, art, and a loving attention to detail. The young child naturally loves the world and will respond in kind when s/he is given pieces of it in his or her own language, that of the heart.

* “Finally, during the formal operational stage, which lasts from age eleven on, adolescents learn how to think more abstractly to solve problems and to think symbolically, e.g., about things that aren’t really there concretely in front of them.”

Growing up is a slow and organic process, not to be rushed through. As Wordsworth says:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing Boy,

But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,

He sees it in his joy . . .

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