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Kindergarten Environment Design and Education (First International Conference of the CRN Child Science Exchange Program in Asia)

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Presented at the "First International Conference" of CRN Child Science Exchange Program in Asia held in Shanghai, China, March 4-5, 2016.



Reaffirming the "environment for children"

What is an environment? An environment means all external elements surrounding a person including natural and social elements, macro and micro elements, and human relationships. To put it simply, environment means all things apart from oneself. A developmental psychologist, Bronfenbrenner, considers that the developmental process of humans is formed by interactions between the environment and individuals. In the 1970s-1980s, he defined the term "environment" so that it included various events and conditions that affect human developments or can be affected and changed by humans. Now, how about those events and conditions that do not affect human development or do not receive any influence from humans? Are they considered as environment?

I will give you one example. A young man, who had the good fortune to become wealthy, wanted to demonstrate his filial devotion to his parents. To do this, one day, he rented a nice cafeteria for the day and invited his parents there. The cafeteria had top class interior features and offered excellent services with relaxing music. Nevertheless, his parents stayed at the cafeteria for only a few minutes and then left. The young man asked his parents what they thought about the environment of the cafeteria. They answered, "We didn't see anything. We didn't get anything nor understand anything. We felt nothing." When he asked about the music, they answered "We couldn't hear anything," and about the coffee served, they answered "It did not taste good." The tasteful decoration of the cafeteria, the music and the coffee offered there had no effect on the parents at all; meaning, therefore, that they did not recognize these things as genuine elements of the environment.

Dialectical materialists insist that "All matters have objective reality regardless of whether they are recognized or not." However, Bronfenbrenner thought differently. Can any environment detached from a person truly exist? He was somewhat idealistic and advocated that we must realize physical things surely do exist, but it is important to know whether or not these things have any impact on humans. The young man and his parents later went to a tea house and had an enjoyable time together, drinking tea and chatting with each other. In this way, they could truly enjoy themselves. This can be considered as a good environment. Therefore, reaffirming an environment is to think about the subjective aspect of the environment that has objective reality.

According to the definitions of Bronfenbrenner, these two essential requirements-"to have objective reality in the external world of children" and "to influence children's development or to be influenced by their development"-should be fulfilled to achieve an environment which is beneficial to children.

The impact of the environment on children's development

When I visit kindergartens, I often see they are fully equipped with plenty of toys, picture books and other necessary items for children. However, it is necessary to consider whether such an environment has any effects on children, or receives any effects from children. There are two important missions for pre-school education. One is to provide education according to the developmental stage of each child, which is a different concept from those of school education. We value children's autonomy and place emphasis on the role of "play" in children's learning. Play is the most flexible activity attuned to children's development. Essentially, children will develop their skills by themselves while they are playing, just as a seed planted in the earth will sprout and bear fruit by itself. However, we never know whether or not the environment we created for children has had any effect on the development of children.

Assume that the environment has affected the development of children. Children will reach out to the environment or physical things through their experience and gain satisfaction, and from such things they will discover the meaning of their activities. That significance is something discovered by children only, and adults will never know the meaning of this to children. Nevertheless, it is the duty of adults to try to understand children's thoughts and support their development according to their characteristics. This can also be considered as an aspect of education.

Another role of pre-school education is to influence children's development through the environment. We, as educators, have the responsibility to enhance the development of children to the maximum extent instead of simply allowing children to play freely. This is the value that we seek in education. The question raised here is, how can we promote children's development and achieve our goal of education? Our goal here does not refer to a goal corresponding to each development stage, but a goal set by an educator. We should not confuse children's development with education.

Educators should apportion a certain educational significance to the environment. It is ideal to influence children's development at each developmental stage; however, we do not know what is really needed for their development. Therefore, educators should earnestly learn not only what they can learn but also what they should learn. What they should learn is something worth being implemented in education. The environment can truly enhance children's development only when it has factors useful for education. Educators should reconsider deeply the meaning of the environment and understand that the same environment might have different effects on children at different developmental stages. They should also understand that it is possible to add different educational significances to the same environment. For example, kindergarten teachers are constantly working hard to provide the best environment for children, appropriate for their age. However, if they end up investing too much time and effort to design the optimum environment for all children at different ages, they will end up exhausted and become incapable of addressing other issues. Actually, the meaning of the environment for children gradually changes as they get older. This is called a change in the function of environment due to the developmental process of children. Therefore, the environment is not only an objective reality but also something that changes along with the development of humans.

The environment has two aspects-"objectivity" and "subjectivity." The environment has objective reality containing all elements except "oneself." Objectivity has two aspects. One is that the meaning of play varies when different children play with the same object, or when a single child plays with different objects. Children will develop play activities through their experiences and find the meaning of the play just like some children being able to digest the food when another cannot, eating the same food. Another factor is that adults are expected to give educational significance to the environment. Education is conducted by humans and will not happen without educators. People of different levels have different demands. Then, how can we satisfy their demands? The answer is that we need to realize the value of the environment through play and educational practice. Therefore, a kindergarten cannot be referred to as such if it has neither education nor play.

In terms of environmental design, I always wonder how most kindergartens see it and what they consider to be important about it. If they have no clear view of what they want to achieve and just mimic the good educational materials and environments they saw at other kindergartens, that would never lead to creating a better educational environment. It is necessary to fully understand the roles of each item of educational material and the environment, and deeply determine whether a certain element should be recognized as an object or as part of the environment. Objects exist all around us, but the environment is an objective reality including all elements except human beings, which will affect the person, and at the same time, be affected by the development of the person.

Let me also talk about the Montessori Method. There are various Montessori educational materials. In themselves they have no special meaning and appear to be much the same as other educational materials. However, these materials have come to be considered as part of the environment because Montessori and her successors imparted educational significance to these materials under their method. Some people casually criticize Montessori. However, there should be rational reasons to show why the Montessori Method has been accepted globally, considering the fact that somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 schools are practicing the method around the world.

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Play and education with toys

Essentially, kindergartens offer two things-play and education. Whether it may be 100% play or 100% education, or implementing education into play, or vice versa, the activities of children are always a combination of play and education. As such, play and education can be combined but cannot be replaced by each other, because play and education are two completely different things. Play is an activity that children are willing to do, and education is an activity to be conducted from the standpoint of adults. These can be combined but each has a completely different concept. Therefore, play and education should not be disproportionately adopted. I often liken play to "rice" and education to "mug beans." They can both be cooked together, after which they will be mixed up and indistinguishable after cooking. Even so, rice cannot become green beans and mug beans cannot become rice. They are two completely different things. Therefore, education should not be replaced by play nor play replaced by education.

If toys are considered as an environment, those used only for play are true toys. Likewise, those used only for education are true educational materials, and not toys. Accordingly, I coined new terms-"play and learning toy" and "educational toy". The former term means a toy primarily used for play but can be used in learning, while the latter term means a toy primarily used for education but can be used as a toy as well. Here, we need to consider the re-creation of the value of toys. In other words, we need to think about giving educational significance to toys that have objective reality, and converting the activity of play with toys into an activity with educational significance.

There are three methods of using toys. The first method is to let children play with toys by themselves, while the second method is to include education in play with toys or to include play with toys in education. The third method is to use toys only for education. Let's look into each method. Manufacturing toys with various materials by toy manufacturers is a creative process. For example, a toy is created from a piece of wood through such a process. As a result, a material valued at just three yuan may turn into a toy with a value of ten yuan. Similarly, if a toy is converted into something that has educational significance; such a meaningful process is considered as "re-creation" from the standpoint of education.

Changing a toy into an educational tool is a re-creation by educators. If educators do not have a clear vision of the education goal, an effective re-creation will never be achieved. When using a toy in learning, it is not necessary to pay much attention to children's interests and demands. However, when using a toy for education as well as a toy for play, it becomes more complicated. Children will find the meaning of play with toys while they are taught through playing, and educators are required to impart educational significance to these toys. As a result, educators need to consider not only the accomplishment of their education goals but also children's interests and demands.

It is likely that the process of re-creation by children is overlooked at the stages of research, development and use of toys. We should not make the mistake of thinking that educators are very clever and know everything there is to know about children's toys. In fact, children really resemble a very complicated, difficult book. If their state of mind could be easily understood, psychologists would lose their jobs immediately. It might be wrong to try to understand children's psychological state while they are playing with toys. Many professionals insist that it is necessary to understand children's psychological state, and then, provide the most suitable materials, and provide education for them. However, is it possible to do this? It is not an easy task to read and understand children's state of mind.

Nevertheless, if toys are classified into "play and learning toys" or "educational toys" in the process of re-creation, educational significance will then be added to such toys by educators. Moreover, because educational significance will be added according to education targets and children's developmental stages, it becomes easier to combine play and education efficiently. For educational materials, educators will give educational significance based on their educational goal or the standard of children's developmental stages; therefore, educators should fully recognize why they chose such materials and what they wish to provide for children. This is the significant difference between "play and learning toys/educational toys" and educational materials.

Now, I will summarize what I have discussed. One of the criteria to impart educational significance is an educational goal. The Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed disapproval of the fact that a few years ago the subject of Chinese poetry had been discontinued from the curriculum for first graders at elementary schools in Shanghai. Such things should be taught to young children regardless of their desire. This is the significance of education.

The second criterion is the standard of children's developmental stages. For example, there is a simple toy to string animal ornaments together. If teachers let children at different ages simply play with this toy without giving any instruction or suggestion, they might play at the same level. However, depending on the ideas of teachers, children can find various patterns of play and its various meanings. Therefore, it can be stated that the quality of objects does not matter so much as the technique of teachers. There are many things that can be utilized in play. In this regard, the major challenge of teachers is to recognize such things and make use of them in their educational practice.

I do not recommend that kindergartens be excessively equipped with things. An object without an educational function is merely an object, and it is not necessary to provide it. World-renowned "toys" and "educational materials" have been jointly studied and created by professionals in various fields (such as educators, developmental psychologists, designers and teachers). Kindergartens should find a way to effectively utilize these toys and materials within their facilities. More importantly, kindergarten teachers should consider how to select these toys and materials. This represents a further challenge for teachers.

Profile

Jiaxiong_Zhu.jpgJiaxiong Zhu, Professor Emeritus, East China Normal University

Standing director, academic committee member, head of Academic Committee of Early Childhood Education, China Education Association; Professor Emeritus, advisor to Ph.D candidates, East China Normal University; Member of the 3rd National Curriculum Resource Experts' Committee for Teacher Education, Ministry of Education; Director, Chairman of Mainland China Committee, Pacific Early Childhood Education Research Association (PECERA). International editorial board member for quite a few international academic journals such as "Early Childhood Development", "Studies on Contemporary Early Education Issues" (CIEC UK), "European Studies on Early Childhood Education", "Studies on Early Childhood Education at Pan-Pacific Regions", "Studies on Policies Related to Children Care and Education" (JCEP South Korea), "Academic Journal for Preschoolers", etc.
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