Authentic Learning & Authentic Learning Environments

A few weeks back a professional colleague asked what I thought an authentic learning environment looked like, this is my rather long winded answer 😊

Authentic learning “… is a pedagogical approach that allows for the construction of meaning grounded in real-life situations and the learners own personal experience” (Authentic Learning Environments). An environment allows for authentic learning when children have caring,  authentic relationships with educators and space to experiment and explore.

An authentic learning environment begins with authentic relationships between children and educators. Authentic relationships with children are hugely important because “[n]o significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”  (Dr. James P. Comer, professor of Child Psychiatry) When a classroom culture cultivates positive relationships and a sense of belonging and inclusion children have the security to learn in authentic ways.

In authentic learning environments children are allowed to make discoveries through concrete, hands on experiences rather than attempting to force them to understand a concept by filling out a worksheet or participating in a teacher planned lesson. As Bev Boss, early learning expert said, “If it hasn’t been in the hand and body it can’t be in the brain!”

Giving children the space and time to play and to construct their own understanding of the world is crucial if we want their learning to be meaningful to them. Educators in authentic learning environments are co-learners and play partners, scaffolding the children’s learning with open ended questions and gentle guidance.

The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.  – Alexandra K. Trenfor

Children are designed to learn, motivated to discover and understand the world around them. From the moment babies enter the world they are eager explorers visually mapping the faces of those closest to them, communicating with cries and smiles, and learning through interacting with their environment. As educators we must support that natural drive to discover by creating welcoming environments that inspire children to learn.

Reflecting children’s interests and individual needs creates a rich and meaningful classroom environment. Because teachers in authentic environments cultivate close relationships with children and their families they genuinely understand what topics will ignite their students’ curiosity and are able to weave them into the fabric of play.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. – William Butler Yeats.

When teachers are sensitive to each child’s individual needs, interests and temperaments and the environment is conducive to exploration and play, authentic learning is a natural process that occurs organically. Authentic learning is distinctly meaningful to each individual child and it is the things that have meaning to us that linger in our minds and our hearts for a lifetime.

Learning About Orange Shirt Day with Young Children

Every child matters.

These words emblazoned on an orange shirt are striking and true. They honor the story of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad who was just 6 years old when she attended one of the residential schools in Canada. On her very first day she wore a shiny new orange shirt her grandmother had bought for her, she was happy and excited to be going to school. However, when she arrived at the mission they stripped her and took her clothes away, including her very special shirt. It was never returned to her. Phyllis felt sad and hurt, but what was worse was the fact that her feelings didn’t seem to matter at all to the adults around her.  (orangeshirtday.org)

“The color orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.” – Phyllis (Jack) Webstad   (orangeshirtday.org)

Each year on Orange Shirt Day I share Phyllis’s story with the children in my class. It gives the little ones a glimpse of some of the terrible things that took place in the residential schools from a child’s perspective.

It may seem like a difficult subject to approach with such young children but we have a responsibility to share the truth with our students about what happened to First Nations, Métis and Inuit children at the residential schools in ways that are age appropriate and consider their developmental level. Discussing the residential schools and those harmed by them in terms that children can grasp supports understanding and empathy.

The children in my program are very little so we use a lot of stories to explain the narratives of different cultures and people in our country and around the world. Many children’s stories have been written that talk about the history of the residential schools in simple ways that are easily understood by little ones.

Some of the books we’ve read about residential schools include;

Shi-shi-etko by Nicola Campbell
This is a story about a little girl leaving for a residential school; she spends the day before she leaves taking in her family’s teachings to protect her while she is away from home.

Kookum’s Red Shoes by Peter Eyvindson
In this story a grandmother recounts her time in the residential schools and how it affected her whole life.

The children and I spend time discussing how the First Nations, Métis and Inuit little ones must have felt being so far away from their home and being forbidden to use their own languages or practice their cultures. We talk about how the teachers were unkind to the children in the residential schools and it makes us feel very sad for them; no child should be treated harshly of be made to feel like they don’t matter.

Orange Shirt Day is set aside to reflect on the residential schools and to empathize with the First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who were so deeply impacted by their cruel practices. We learn Phyllis’s story because she explains in a very concrete way that something was taken from her and from all of the children in the residential schools; their material possessions, their languages and cultural practices. We remember and learn together to prevent this atrocity from ever happening again, but our work as educators doesn’t end with one conversation, one story, or one day. We must cultivate inclusion in our classroom, foster kindness, and ensure that our learning environments represent different cultures, races, and a rainbow of different human experiences because every child matters.

A special thank you to Joan Sorley, the director of the Orange Shirt Society, for taking the time to read this over for me before it was published.

Inclusion in Early Learning Programs: Why Representation Matters

The children in my class absolutely love reading stories; they cuddle in my lap and on cushions beside me as I spin tales in silly voices about princesses and pirates and going off on magical adventures.

I very carefully choose the books that line our shelves each week. I strive to include different people, different languages, different cultures, because every child should see themselves in our stories.  It can be hard to imagine ourselves in these rich literary worlds if none of the characters looks like us or feel like us or have families like us.

Books introduce children to different narratives and life experiences; there can be a princess who is a boy and girls can slay fearsome dragons. Instead of long blond hair Rapunzel lets down her dark and curly locks, Prince Charming has a dark complexion and loves the prince in a neighbouring kingdom, and the hero of the story uses a walker for mobility.

Incorporating culture, race, language, ability, ethnicity, family structure, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression, and socioeconomic differences in the books, pictures and materials in the learning environment ensures it is a welcoming and inclusive space for all children in the program. Children feel a sense of belonging when their individuality and presence are valued in the learning community (How Does Learning Happen? Page 24).

“Most of the books teachers read to classes don’t feature gender nonconforming characters” explains Meaghan Grant, advocate and mother of a gender expansive child. “Students don’t study famous and groundbreaking trans people. They don’t see themselves reflected in the culture being taught. And for trans kids who have a supportive community and family, that might be okay. But the kids who are cisgender or don’t have supportive families are also not getting the exposure that would normalize their gender expansive peers.”

Grant adds, “Representation is key in inclusion and tolerance. Without representation, a person is always going to be “other””

Creating inclusive learning environments in which children with diverse skills, cultures, family structures, and gender expressions play and learn together supports their development of empathy, respect and understanding for one another. “All children benefit from being in inclusive environments where they are able to participate and collaborate in meaningful ways and form authentic, caring relationships.” (How Does Learning Happen? Page 25)

An environment can foster a sense of belonging in a variety of ways.

Adapting your space so that children of varying skill levels and abilities can freely play and explore together helps everyone to feel that they belong. Our classroom, for example, is a multi-age group so we must be attentive to the inclusion of all of the little ones as well as their older peers. With this in mind, we have lined our shelves with loose parts because there is no right or wrong way to play with these materials, each child can use them in their own unique way. “Every child should feel that he or she belongs, is a valuable contributor to his or her surroundings, and deserves the opportunity to succeed.” (How Does Learning Happen? Page 6)

“We have a family tree (branches) that we display family photos on,” says Ivy Woods, RECE. “This way they can see the varying dynamics that a family can be made up of. We have many children with a Mom and Grandma as parents, 2 same sex parents, Grandparents and Aunt and Uncle playing the parenting role.”

“I personally learn key words for the children whose first language is not English. I also have lots of multicultural books and toys within the program. I sing songs from different languages and I ask the families of songs the kids enjoy so I can learn and sing to them,” says Lena Calheta, RECE. “I also make sure to state when we talk about families that not all are the same and many have different dynamics.”

Modelling respect for everyone in the learning environment is key to creating a sense of belonging in the  learning community according to Kay Kucharzyk, RECE. “A respectful environment is contagious but so is a disrespectful one,” explains Kucharzyk.

Families can be a great resource for materials and information to use to enrich your classroom environment. “Families bring diverse social, cultural, and linguistic perspectives. Families should feel that they belong, are valuable contributors to their children’s learning, and deserve to be engaged in a meaningful way.” (How Does Learning Happen? Page 7)

Little things can make a huge difference for the small people in your classroom. Incorporating pieces of fabric from their culture, family pictures, cooking utensils in the dramatic center like those they see in use at home, and dolls with different skin tones or disabilities, for example, nurtures a feeling of inclusion.

Taking the time to ensure each child can see themselves represented in your program shows them that they fit, they matter, and they belong.