Early Learning: Changing the Rules of Engagement

 Two years from now, I want to be looking at an education system in Canada that has made a true commitment to the “early” part of the phrase “early learning”.  Although I think that there’s some hope that this will happen, it is going to require both political and social will to prevent the strategies currently being developed and implemented in all but a couple of Canadian provinces from becoming a mere extension of current thinking about this place we call school.

We need to allow our early learning programs to wake us up to the fact that our schools must change so that they will ready for our children!

I happen to believe that the greatest potential for systemic change in school-based education lies in our handling of the Kindergarten initiatives that are gradually being phased in throughout the country. Although some provinces have committed to sit back and monitor the work being done in other jurisdictions, full day Kindergarten is now on the radar of the entire country. And if we do it right, the groundwork that is laid to provide high quality programs at this level could  have resounding effects throughout the entire system.

Focus on early learning programs has brought back to the table some language that has, in my opinion, been missing for some time: age-appropriate strategies, play-based, experiential learning and nap time! But other things, many of which are politically inspired have also crept into our foundational conversations about early learning: improved student achievement, better transition to school and economic growth.

Now, I’m not naïve enough (anymore) to believe that the impetus behind FDK programs is without political overtones. I do believe, however, that the lasting success and impact that our early learning initiatives could have are only going to be realized if we drop the talk about improved achievement (better test scores) and smoother transition to grade one (better behaved and “school-ready” students). And economic growth? Well…

Our youngest children need programs that deal with the here and now in their lives. These early years, whether at school or at home,  should be filled with discovery, hands-on activity, laughter, group interaction, joy and yes, lots of naps!!! These years should be focused on the today of child development, not the tomorrow of grade one. This is important…really important!

In order to do this our teacher unions, our politicians and those in charge of our provincial testing protocols all need to do one simple thing. They need to get out of the way and let those with the most expertise in early learning do their job. Oh we need to support their efforts, respect their efforts, understanding how important this work is, but we need to let them do it. As long as we’re arguing over contractual, assessment and financial issues, our eye is going to be taken off the prize which happens to be the well-being of our children.

That said, an important side effect of successful early learning programs will be substantial change to the entire system. Think about it. If  we get it right, we’ll  be forced to change our perspective around the way we “do” grades one, two and three.

I predict that children (and their parents) coming out of well-designed and well-implemented kindergarten programs could place significant demands on the way that the subsequent levels of their schooling are conceived. Not only will we, as adults, learn more about the power of play-based, imaginative education at all levels of the system, but we will be faced with the task of continuing to motivate and engage students emerging from these programs. The status quo throughout the rest of the system will be pressured to change in order to accommodate FDK students.

That’s my dream. And it will only come true if we take seriously the recommendations of early learning panels across the nation and around the world. It will only come true if we put aside the desire to use our early learning strategies to get our children ready for school. Instead, we need to allow our early learning programs to wake us up to the fact that our schools must change so that they will be ready for our children!

More to explore here, I know, but I look forward to hearing your thoughts, comments and challenges to my thinking.

About Stephen Hurley

I've been privileged to spend the last 30 years serving the public education system in Ontario. Through opportunities to work at most levels of the system, I have developed a heart for big picture thinking that is grounded in the reality of today's schools. I'm passionate about my own learning and look forward to nurturing that passion through my presence at voicEd.ca


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9 Responses to Early Learning: Changing the Rules of Engagement

  1. Jenn March 18, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

    Yes naps!!!! I know that I need them in a day to be productive :)

    How am I the first person to respond to this? I don’t know a whole lot about FDK do I can’t really argue for or against it, but I do know that the early years are the years where school is still about fun and developing a love for learning. I would love to see the same mentality brought to other years.

    I want to see play, exploration, sharing, snack time and yes, even naps in the upper years! It is a time when play, recess and home time are for the same thing, developing self without over thinking it.

    I am happy to say that EdCamp Hong Kong is going to be held in a kindergarten classroom, I think it is so important that we reflect one what is happening in those walls and think about why we change it so dramatically for when our kids go into grade 1.

    I am curious to know how/ if early year educators and um ‘regular?’ educators collaborate on age appropriate, play based, exploration learning strategies?

    My favourite part of my job is that I get to bring playdoh, Lego and markers to rooms of all learners, adults included and see the glee that they once had as kindergarten children. Sometimes those play toys can reveal a lot more than words can.

    I don’t understand why classrooms don’t have more toys.


  2. Neil March 18, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    Having taught Grade 8 for many years, the oft-repeated refrain heard around the PD / planning table was/is, “if we don’t do things, or teach things in a certain way, then the students will not be ready for Grade 9/High School.”. If we don’t have sit-in-your-seat, pen and paper unit tests, the kids will fail in Grade 9. If we don’t teach them how to write an essay,then they won’t be able to in Grade 9. They need to be on rotary now, because they will be on rotary next year. Basically, we need to “get them ready for High School” before they are in High School.

    The conversations with our local High School faculty have ALWAYS been focused with them telling us what they expect the students to be ready to do in Grade 9. And could we please inform them that if they are having difficulty doing that to please NOT sign up for any Academic courses, thanks. Over the last 12 months, or so, I have completely given up on that idea. Instead, I teach the way know the students want to learn. Project-based. Integrated Curriculum. Collaboration. Full integration of technology. We take our time, and finish every project. If students need more time, they get more time. If some are done earlier, they can start something else (although they usually take another look at their work and redo some, or all of it). If we don’t get through the entire grade 7 curriculum (lol) who cares? I know they don’t.

    In my mind, students don’t need to prepare for the High School “program”, it’s the other way around.

  3. Sheila Stewart March 18, 2012 at 10:09 pm #

    This is a great “place” to zero in on! When you think about it – We have to get this early part of school right! Great suggestions, Stephen, and others so far! The “getting them ready for the next grade” conversation is not one that I have ever enjoyed hearing. And this kind of message impacts so much, as well as impacting student well-being directly, I think. Anxiety-producing? And yes, it starts way too early!

    I have been thinking a lot about the Kindergarten program lately. I think we do need to consider ‘who’ it really is FOR. I also think we need to think carefully about physical space and staff assigned (eg. Is child/development psychology required or expected of staff?). I would also think that the transition from Kdg to Gr. 1 should be more “seamless”, ie Gr. 1 to be more like kindergarten (not the other way around as it seems to have become!)

    I really enjoyed reading about the leadership you have taken with your students and their learning, Neil!

  4. Mary-Ann Fuduric March 20, 2012 at 4:03 pm #

    The early years are so important! My son is in full-day-kindergarten right now in a French Board that has always had FDK. Naps are part of the program and the curriculum is play based. He is not reading yet but he is a smart and happy boy with enjoys school. His teacher does not spend lots of time on paper and pencil activities but does on fun play based learning activities. Friends who have children in other schools are surprised when I tell them he isn’t reading yet. He will get there – for now I am more concerned about his social skills and him learning about himself and what is important for his learning journey ahead. Thanks for the post Stephen – it really struck a chord with me.

  5. Chris April 20, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    YES! chools should be ready for our children. Lets face it, no matter what we do some children will never be ready for school. It is our job to provide a secure environment for our students to build skills, through play and naps and options. We need to get them ready for Grade 1 but there needs to be lots of communication and collaboration between kindergarten and grade 1 teachers to ensure a smooth transition. Full day would help to narrow the achievement gap … bring it to Manitoba please!

  6. James Cumming April 26, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    A very important part of play-based learning and fun is that young children and kids remember the times when they had the most fun. Having children sit in front of a teacher and recite a monotonous alphabet can generate boredom and can negatively affect a child’s disposition. By tapping into the ideas behind how joyful memories are among the best remembered, children would not only find the learning process fun and exciting, but the knowledge would be retained and around a positive aspect of their memories. This could help improve a child’s drive to learn, especially in later grades when fun needs to be supplemented for less dynamic learning processes.

    If from a young age, children learn that the gaining of knowledge and the expansion of their discovery can be an enjoyable process, there could be a major benefit and improvement in their enthusiasm and their drive to learn in later grades/ Its hard to change a childs or teenagers opinion on an idea once its made but if an opinion on learning being enjoyable can be cultivated at a younger age, this idea would continue into the higher grades.

    • Stephen Hurley April 26, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

      James, thanks for your comments on this! I agree that the fostering of good attitudes at an early age is very important. I’m wondering, however, about the attitudes around learning as compared to attitudes around school. We often use the terms as if they were the same thing. Do you know of people, for example, that might be poorly disposed towards school, but really engaged in learning about the world outside of school? Vice versa? I’m wondering about the connections that we make between the two types of learning, and the two sets of dispositions.

      Or could I be completely out to lunch on this one?


      • James Cumming April 27, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

        A poor disposition toward school could possibly have a number of factors. Although I was thinking in the context of memory and linking learning to positive thoughts, it is important to note that a negative connotation toward school could be driven from many factors including social peers. A person who develops an interest in collections and learning species of an item (such as a butterfly collection) may not have had a positive experience from school, but obtained some sort of positive influence around learning. I believe there are ways outside of the educational atmosphere where students gain inspiration to learn knowledge.

        A great example of this actually comes from a personal hobby of mine, the video game industry. Ten years ago, we did not have college and university programs devoted to learning how to write code for games or design models and textures. The people who went into these industries were very literally on their own in learning the skills they have now. I do agree that school and education are not the only ways in which a positive experience on learning can be reinforced.

        I think their is a definite connection between outside the classroom learning and inside the classroom learning. I do believe that educators can reinforce the in class learning experience, as educators can better influence that aspect of learning. While encouragement can be given from inside the classroom, it is still up to the student to pursue interests outside that medium. I believe the best way we can help develop both sides of learning is through positive reinforcement and encouragement as well as trying to make both aspects enjoyable for the student.


  1. The How of Change in Education | voicEd.ca - March 22, 2012

    [...] So….what is feasible, achievable, and desirable for change in the next two years…?  I think a number of things may just happen.  For example, as younger teachers enter the profession, the use of technology and social media will become more embedded in teaching, learning and school practices.  I really hope “Early Learning” will be sorted out to authentically and realistically support the development of these youngsters starting their long school careers.  I appreciated Stephen Hurley’s writing and wishes for it here [...]

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