Learning Together with Young Children
to acknowledge children’s actions and words . . . We
teach young children to play by providing them with
space, time, and materials; offering them support in
problem solving; presenting new problems for them
to solve; paying attention to their spontaneous in-
terests; and valuing their eagerness to learn about
the world in which we all live together.” Contrary to
the prevailing wind, then, we believe children’s play
is both an essential learning tool for young children,
and deeply affected by the quality of the teaching en-
vironment in which it takes place. It’s worth finding
the resources to help teachers learn to do the deep
work of preparing for, encouraging, supporting, and
building curriculum from children’s play.

• problem •
Child-Directed and Teacher-Directed Approaches
Are Presented as Opposed and Mutually Exclusive
For too long, early childhood educators have used
“either/or” thinking, juxtaposing child-initiated play
against teacher-directed curriculum. Proponents of
emergent curriculum have adopted a hands-off ap-
proach, mistakenly believing that an emergent ap-
proach requires teachers to wait for children to initiate
a curriculum idea. Conversely, advocates of the direct
instruction approach have overlooked the learning
that can emerge in children’s play, believing children
can’t learn unless they are taught by adults. With the
passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act many
teachers have brought dittos and drill-and-practice
teaching back into early childhood classrooms, be-
lieving this is the way to ensure school readiness.

The tension between these two approaches has
been heightened by the dynamics of racism, poverty,
and privilege. White, middle class children are raised
with the expectation that they will self-initiate and
tend to do well with this curriculum approach. This is
less true for children of color and low-income families
who often grow up with a cultural expectation that
they will learn what to do from their teachers (Delpit
2006). We’ve come to understand that dichotomizing
child-directed and teacher-directed curriculum ap-
proaches is an over-simplification of the complex
process of teaching and learning. Sue Bredekamp
and Teresa Rosegrant (1995) describe these as a con-
tinuum of teaching behaviors, acknowledging that a
curriculum responsive to children, as well as desired
learning goals, requires a teacher to move across this
spectrum. To determine a helpful teacher behavior
at any given juncture, teachers need a relationship
with the children and their families, and attention
to the details of what is unfolding in the classroom.

We propose that teachers master a repertoire of pos-
sible actions that can be used as a protocol for guiding
children’s learning, including both skills in supporting
and extending child-initiated activities, and expertise
in teacher-directed curriculum. When they are guided
to learn this repertoire and supported by a program
culture that invests in and trusts them, teachers be-
come effective facilitators of learning.

• problem •
No Program Infrastructures to Support
Teachers’ Reflective Practice
The culture of most early childhood programs reflects
an insidious mentality of compliance and scarcity.

Teachers are viewed as technicians accountable to an
ever-growing body of standards and curriculum con-
tent. Simultaneously, budgets for teaching staff are
carefully limited to meeting ratios with children and
adhering to labor laws. Most accredited programs give
teachers paid time for weekly planning and annual
professional development opportunities. While this
is a step in the right direction, it is hardly adequate
for teachers to do their job well. Our earlier book The
Visionary Director offers an extensive set of ideas for
creating a program that goes beyond meeting require-
ments or delivering curriculum to children.

In today’s education world, with increasing em-
phasis on standards and outcomes, a bigger vision
can seem like pie in the sky. Sometimes, the force of
one person or small team can push a vision forward,
but without an infrastructure to support the actual
work of living into a vision, sustainability is difficult.

Teachers and administrators burn out, become cyni-
cal, or give up. Moving a program toward the curricu-
lum approach proposed by this book requires a close