The Similarities Between Non-Formal Education and Early Childhood Education

Wendy M. Rich-Orloff
American University

When one hears the term “Non-Formal Education” (NFE), what comes to mind? Does the person think of Paulo Freire? Empowering the poor? Supporting communities to become self-sufficient? Expanding the accessibility of educational opportunities? Health or gender issues? Political revolution? All of these areas have in some way been associated with NFE. This paper, though, looks at NFE from a different perspective. In many ways the principles and techniques of NFE are very similar to early childhood education (ECE). After defining both NFE and ECE and their respective principles and techniques, we will then compare the two and see what similarities we find. The High/Scope Curriculum will be used as a case study to see NFE principles in practice in an ECE setting. 

Non-Formal Education

Non-Formal Education can best be described as “any organized, systematic educational activity carried on outside the framework of the formal system to provide selected types of learning to particular subgroups in the population, adults as well as children”  (La Belle, 1986, p.2). What does this definition really mean, and how does it relate to a classroom environment? La Belle continues, “[The] teaching/learning process must be ‘organized, a systematic educational activity’ and … ‘outside the framework of the formal system'” (p.6). Activities must be planned so they are natural social interactions. Learning is not forced, but rather is an extension of interacting with materials and people. Outside the framework means there are no grades, mandated curriculum, certificates or diplomas. NFE can be either externally directed and/or self-initiated, with stress on the connection between what’s been learned with how to mobilize resources. This view sees local development programs holistically from many perspectives including the individual, the community, those in power, and those who can help.

There are four assumptions of adult education that effect NFE. These assumptions are:

  1. Adults desire and utilize self-directedness.

  2. Adults’ experiences are a rich resource for learning. Adults learn through              experiential techniques (learn by doing), discussion, and/or problem solving.

  3. Adults are aware of their personal learning needs from real life tasks or problems.

  4. Adults are competency-based learners, and want to apply what they have          learned to their own life. (Brookfield, 1991, p. 92)

The task of the teacher or facilitator is to create a program and setting where adult learners can develop self-directed learning skills.

A well-known proponent of NFE is Paulo Freire. During the 1960s he was very involved in the plight of the poor in Latin America, and concluded that education was the best way to address inequalities. Since formal education was not addressing these issues, Freire advocated NFE as a way to raise awareness and consciousness of the situation, and to empower the poor to take more control over their lives. Freire felt that critical consciousness would address the issues. Through dialogues that addressed both problems and their underlying causes, and the critical reflection of these dialogues, the poor would learn to no longer blame themselves. Future actions, often political, were identified to help support the poor (Ewert, 1989). Freire decided to call this process praxis – the concept of action yielding reflection, which would yield more action. The beginning action would be the dialogues, and from the reflections of those dialogues further action would be identified. This process increased the participants’ self-esteem, and gave them hope.

Paulo Freire felt it was not possible to split theory from practice; learners must be given the space and freedom to develop their own theories. According to Freire, a “top down” transfer of knowledge from the teacher to the student doesn’t work; people’s involvement in the creation of their own knowledge through struggling with the concepts is the key to ensuring a proper learning process (PLA Notes, 1998). Key lessons from Freire included:

  • Everyone has the capacity and right to learn.
  • Education can either help empower or maintain the status quo.
  • To be liberating, the educational process should be participatory.
  • Knowledge should not be fed to the participants; the environment should be created so they can explore, analyze, and synthesize.
  • Education yields participation, which in turn yields liberation.
  • Liberation is the process of transforming oneself and creating a new society.
  • Changes are to occur in both individual behavior and social power relations. (PLA Notes, 1998, p. 122)

Teachers should not teach answers, but instead create an environment so participants can analyze, reflect and create new learning (PLA Notes, 1998). Freire encouraged the development of ideas within a social context. Themes such as health care, gender issues, and/or social equality were presented in ways that might generate discussion. While the themes were presented, a solution was not; the goal of the program is for participants to engage in their own problem posing and problem-solving.

Freire identified three levels of thought (Shor, 1993). These included:

  1. Intransitive thought – This is the lowest stage, where people are the most         dominated. People live fatalistically, believing that their fate is out of their hands.

  2. Semi-transitive – People exercise some thought and action or change.

  3. Critical transitivity – The highest development of thought and action; people think holistically and critically (pp. 32-33).

Freire hoped that while people most likely entered NFE development courses thinking intransitively, they would be challenged in their thinking and therefore leave the program viewing their situation critically and actively.

Another theorist who has used NFE in his work is Miles Horton. His program Highlander specializes in working with adults and union organizations to help empower the everyday poor worker. “I have a holistic view of the educative process… The educative process must be organic, and not an assortment of unrelated methods and ideas” (Horton, 1990, p. 130). Horton believed that as an adult educator, the program needed to flow from the participant’s interests and concerns. “You have to start where people are, because their growth is going to be from there, not from some abstraction or where you are or someone else is” (Horton, p. 131).  According to Horton,  participants know the basic answers to their questions, but in order for them to go further, adult teachers need to ask questions and stimulate thinking, thru discussion, for them to go beyond their immediate experience. This building on personal experience is the basis for future learning. Providing adult learners with opportunities to learn for themselves by making decisions will also help teach them the concepts of social equality and freedom of speech (Horton, 1990).  For NFE to be appropriate for adult learners, there should be a “down-up” approach rather than a “top-down” approach. Begin by learning what people perceive their own problems to be, and then build on that. Theories should be molded into the practice rather than forcing practices to fit theories.

According to Ewert (1989), NFE can be used for a variety of purposes: to increase literacy among adults; mobilize the poor and marginalized for empowerment; as a grass-roots movement focusing on society’s underlying structural problems; or as community-based development, focusing on health and agriculture that brings knowledge to the people so they can practice for themselves. NFE’s goal is to train locals to continue training others. NFE stresses the integrated development of health, agriculture, and political action at the local level (Ewert, 1989). Ewert identified the following themes of NFE in development: process instead of projects, NFE as an empowering process, participation, and a rise in voluntary initiatives (p.94).

Another major contributor to the field of adult education is Malcolm Knowles. Knowles felt “that adults possess … experiences that affect how they perceive the world, and [these experiences should be a] source … for curriculum development and learning activities” (Brookfield, 1991, p. 98). The most significant form of adult learning is critical reflection, interpretation, and exchange of experiences.

Knowles defines the differences between the pedagogical model (school age learning) and the andragogical model (adult learning). There are seven components of adult learning (andragogy): 

  1. The physical and psychological environment should be conducive to learning. (Circular seating, mutual respect, trust).

  2. Involve learners in the mutual planning of methods and curricular decisions.

  3. Involve learners in diagnosing their learning needs.

  4. Encourage learners to formulate their own learning objectives.

  5. Help learners identify resources and come up with strategies for using these resources to achieve their own objectives.

  6. Help learners carry out learning plans.

  7. Help learners evaluate their learning. (Brookfield, 1991, pg. 102).

This set of assumptions about how adults learn impact how an adult education program should be run. Within an adult education program, learning should be self-directed, since adults are capable of taking responsibility for themselves. There should be a variety of experiences. Adults should be seen as a rich resource for each other. Individualized learning plans and/or learning contracts should be encouraged to focus on individualized needs. Adult learners are assumed to be motivated to learn. A life-centered, task-centered, or problem-centered approach to learning would be most appropriate. How relevant the subject matter is to the learner’s life is very important; motivations to learn are then more internalized (Knowles, 1985).

To address this type of program design, the teacher should be seen as a facilitator. The facilitator’s role includes mutual planning with the learners. This would involve supporting the participants in diagnosing their own needs, formulating learning objectives, designing learning plans, and evaluating their learning. Facilitators would also be expected to help participants carry out their learning plans (Knowles, 1985).

In comparison, the pedagogical model for school aged children is very different. Within this model, everything is pre-planned; the teacher has full responsibility and the student is seen as a passive learner. The teacher and administration make all decisions, with little to no input from the students. Students have little experience and rely on teachers, textbooks, and materials for the information to be “fed” to them. Students must learn what they are told to learn in order to get to the next grade level. Activities are subject-centered, and learning is seen as a process to learn the subject mater content. Motivation to learn comes from external factors – parents, teachers, competition for grades, consequences for failure, etc. (Knowles, 1985, pp. 8-9). To address the pedagogical program design, Knowles (pp.13-14) asks four questions: What content needs to be covered? How can it be organized into manageable units? What would be the logical sequence of those units? What would be the best way to present the content?

Both Freire and Knowles agree that facilitators should not participate in banking education, where students are viewed as empty containers waiting to be filled with the teacher’s knowledge. Education should be participatory, with the teacher as a critical problem-poser, asking thought-provoking questions and encouraging students to ask questions as well. “Students [should] experience education as something they do, not as something done to them” (Shor, 1993, p. 26). When teaching in a problem-posing style, educational materials should be integrated into the students’ lives and thoughts (Shor, 1993). In return, students learn to question and evaluate life instead of just walking through it.

An understanding of the theories of NFE does an educator little good, however, unless an educator knows how to implement its components in the classroom. NFE is recognizing the strengths of the learners – all can learn and contribute to the program. To make the program relevant, learning materials should be used which portray life familiarly and reflect the participants’ reality.  The program should foster the self-esteem and self-confidence of the participants, and encourage them to make choices, solve problems, and look at different options (Boudin, 1993).

Non-Formal Education programs which have been recognized as successful have the following in common:

  1. Small, local beginnings and slow, decentralized growth.

  2. Involvement of local people (esp. the poor) in each phase of the program.

  3. An approach that views planning as a “learning process”.

  4. Leaders whose first responsibility is to the poor.

  5. Recognition that good health can only be attained through helping the poor improve the entire situation in which they live. (Werner & Bower, 1982, p.1).

The way the group leader teaches can either break down or build up the self-confidence and community strength of the group members. “Good teaching is the art, not of PUTTING IDEAS INTO people’s heads, but of DRAWING IDEAS OUT” (Werner & Bower, 1982, p. 1-16). Experience leads to practice, which yields an understanding of why. “Critical thinking begins when people make the connections between their individual lives and the social conditions around them” (Ahern, p. 6).

Participation is defined when learners actively reflect on their own lives, assess their own and/or the group’s needs, and participate in coming up with answers. “The fundamental basis of all human learning is rooted in the complex web of relationships that exist between a person and his/her environment” (Bopp, 1994, p. 24). Participation is integral to learning and human development. One learns, grows, and develops through directly interacting with and reflecting upon the world around them (Bopp, 1994).

Common features of popular education projects include a political and social analysis of the poor and their problems, and engaging them in both individual and group discussions to increase their awareness of the situation. Educational practices are based on previous experiences and group work. Concrete skills and abilities are focused on, with the goal to increase pride, dignity, confidence, and self-reliance (Torres, 1990).

Teaching in the NFE methodology means teaching students to think. Programs are most effective when they are in the context of real problem-solving. Teachers should demonstrate and model the process of solving a problem by urging students to talk out loud as the steps of a problem are gone through. Real discussions about real concerns teach thinking skills and how to look at all perspectives (Cromley, 2000). Adult leaders should teach for understanding; this deeper understanding will help adults transfer their knowledge to other situations.

A person’s mental model is shorthand for experience. This affects how we understand what we see and hear (Cromley, 2000). The mental model helps organize information, sets up expectations, remembers things associated with specific objects, organizes background knowledge, and provides problem-solving shortcuts. Mental models are based on prior knowledge. This is why teachers should be encouraged to identify their students’ prior knowledge; it will help show the teacher how to mesh what the students already know and what they are learning (Cromley, 2000). When adults learn for understanding and meaning, knowledge will transfer to one’s memory more effectively. This also helps learners build their own mental models rather than accept those of others.

Memory is the process of putting information into storage and then retrieving it later. Information is remembered better when more than one sense is used to process the information. This creates many paths in the brain to be utilized as the knowledge is being processed, so it will be easier to remember later (Cromley, 2000).  To learn anything, a student needs to associate it to something he/she already knows. Thinking develops in stage-like sequences, but there are no absolute stages at specific ages. Thinking develops from familiar to less familiar. According to Cromley, the differences between child learners and adult learners are how memories, interests, life experiences, and background knowledge impact on one’s ability to relate to the topics being discussed.

Active Learning is a process in which participants are allowed to figure things out for themselves and participate in discussions, activities, and projects. According to Cromley (2000), active learning benefits participants cognitively and philosophically: cognitively, because students will have difficulty remembering information unless they are encouraged and supported to use their new knowledge, and philosophically, because the goal of education (and active learning) is to create independent thinkers. Participants also pay more attention and will be encouraged to do their best when they are interested and involved.  Active learning includes a problem-based approach – using real world problems that students are interested in and that draws on their skills and knowledge. These problems have no simple answers, and they are explored in groups of students working together (Cromley, 2000). Problems create a “need to know”, and engages participants in the program.

Real motivation is encouraged when students learn for understanding, using topics that students are interested in, making real-world learning relevant to life experiences, providing real choices, working with others, and when teachers are involved (Cromley, 2000). If a teacher complains that s/he has trouble motivating a learner, it could be because that person has not connected to the learner’s interests.

NFE also uses some specific techniques to address these issues. One way to address participants’ concerns is through participatory research. This involves the participants identifying their own problems, working out options, creating a plan, and organizing how to accomplish their plan (Kane, 2001). Steps include: identify the problems; come up with possible solutions; assess these solutions; create an action plan; mobilize for action; monitor and evaluate the results. Participants should learn from any errors they might make and share the lessons they have learned with other members of the program. The important thing to remember is to let them do it.

Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) offers techniques and activities that can be used within the NFE context. Some examples include:

  • Mapping and modeling
  • Diagrams
  • Seasonal calendar/timetable
  • Learn by doing
  • Stories
  • Case studies
  • Proverbs
  • Pie chart
  • Matrices

All of these techniques are activities that participants engage in. The charts, maps, and diagrams are often completed on the ground, using moveable symbols. This increases participation, is more comfortable for participants, and supports participants if they feel a need to change their minds about how they have recorded information – the recordings are not permanent, and the participants don’t have to worry about “redoing” the activity. Symbols and pictures are used to record their thoughts and answers, to encourage participation whether one is literate or illiterate.

Other materials which can be used in adult training sessions include flash cards, flannel boards, teaching aids, real materials, games, puzzles, pictures, photos, drawings, story telling, picture books, role playing, theater, puppet shows, critical discussions and reflections, comic books, radio, and television. Greater varieties of mediums used will help gain participants’ interests and involvement. These activities help the participants make sense of the situations they are in, and help them see possible solutions to their problems.

To summarize, the main points of NFE are seeing, thinking, doing. The human mind is a muscle; while it grows stronger with use, it also can get weaker when not used.

Early Childhood Education

Early Childhood Education (ECE) is often considered a sub-set of NFE, because it is not like the pedagogical method of education for school-aged children. ECE focuses on how young children benefit from early educational experiences that will prepare them for school both cognitively and socially in later years. These educational programs are for young children, most commonly between the ages of 3-5 (though sometimes 2-year-olds are included in this category and have their own developmentally appropriate program).

Jean Piaget is considered one of the main theorists who have contributed a great deal to ECE. Piaget’s theories are based on the observations that preschoolers actively explore with their bodies and senses to gain information about the world. Piaget theorized that there are predictable stages of cognitive development, and all children follow this outline – though at their own pace. Children adapt and process information two ways – through assimilation (processing information in such a way that it is compatible with the child’s current understanding of the world), and by accommodation (processing information and changing or developing a new way of understanding something) (Dworetzky, 1990). Piaget created a simple chart to describe these cognitive stages that all children participate in.

Sensorimotor Period (0-2 years)

  • Stage 1, Reflex Activity (0-1 month): Natural reflexes become less awkward.

  • Stage 2, Self-Investigation (1-4 months): Infant explores his/her own body.

  • Stage 3, Coordination And Reaching Out (4-8 months): Infant tries to reach objects other than his/her own body.

  • Stage 4, Goal-Directed Behavior (8-12 months): Behaviors become more purposeful in order to try and reach a goal. Sequences of actions are combined to accomplish something. Children begin to search for something that is out of sight, though not consistently.

  • Stage 5, Experimentation (12-18 months): Toddlers actively experiment to see cause-effect relationships.

  • Stage 6, Problem Solving And Mental Combinations (18-24 months): Toddlers develop a full understanding that things exist even if not in sight.

Object Permanence – understanding that even if something is out of sight, it still exists.

Preoperational Period (2-7 years)

  • Preconceptual Stage (2-4 years): Young children begin to develop concepts and understand relationships.

  • Syncretic Reasoning – immature way of sorting and classifying, not fully developed.

  • Transductive Reasoning – drawing inference about relationship between objects based on one attribute.

  • Animistic Thinking – inanimate objects are alive.

  • Intuitive Stage (4-7 years): Children’s beliefs are based on what they sense is true, not on logic or rational thought.

Period of Concrete Operations (7-11 years) 

  • Conservation: Understanding that the amount of something does not change unless something is added or taken away from it, even if the container changes shape.

  • Reversibility: The ability to think back and reverse steps in the mind, thinking about what just did.

  • Seriation: The ability to place items, thoughts, stages in correct sequence.

  • Classification: To organize into many different classes of objects, and subclasses.

  • Numeration: The sequence of numbers, and how they can be grouped.

Period of Formal Operations (11+ years)

  • Children can apply logical rules to situations and can form hypothesis. (Dworetzky, 1990; Abraham, Morris, & Wald, 1993)

Aside from cognition, areas of development that ECE focuses on also include language (expressive and receptive), motor (gross or large muscles and fine or small muscles), personal-social, and adaptive (self-help) skills. Other theorists have also contributed to our understanding of early childhood development, including Stanley Greenspan and Erik Erikson, whom studied children’s social developmentFive “building blocks” have been identified for social development: trust; autonomy (the capacity for independence and exploration); initiative (begin and follow through with a task); empathy (understand feelings of others); and self-esteem (Brickman & Taylor, 1991, pp. 16-17). According to Lauter-Klatell (1991),Greenspan points out that development consists of continuous growth. He identified 6 stages of social-emotional development:

  1. Self-regulation and interest in the world (0-3 months). Children are learning to become calm regardless of the amount of stimulation around him/her.
  2. Falling in love (2-7 months). He/she is showing interest in those around him/her, especially the main caregiver.
  3. Development of intentional communication (3-10 months). The child can begin to express emotion and expression in response to another.
  4. Emergence of an organized sense of self (9-18 months). He/she initiates more interactions, knows how to get others to react.
  5. Creation of emotional ideas (18 to 36 months).  The child is displaying object permanence and beginning to imagine.
  6. Emotional thinking: The basis for fantasy, reality, and self-esteem (30-48 months). He/she begins to understand how emotions work, and has a better understanding of the world. (Dworetzky, 1990, pp. 163-168)

These stages help parents and teachers understand the emotions of the child more clearly, and how they can help support the child’s emotional growth.

Erik Erikson also created developmental stages that he felt all children progress through. The difference is that Erikson studied a person’s psychosocial development from infancy all the way into adulthood and to the end of life. These Psychosocial Stages include:

  1. Basic trust vs. Mistrust (infancy): The child develops trust that the caregiver will meet his/her needs and be caring and nurturing.
  2. Autonomy vs. Shame or doubt (1-3 years): The child is beginning independence; if the child learns that it is wrong to attempt independence, he/she will develop shame and doubt.
  3. Initiative Vs. Guilt (3- 5 ½): S/he initiates actions on his/her own; if successful or attempts are accepted, then guilt is avoided.
  4. Industry Vs. Inferiority (5 ½  – 12 years): The child learns to feel competent in what he/she does; failure leads to inferiority.
  5. Identity vs. Role confusion (adolescence): The child develops a sense of identity with family and peers, and begins to think about what he/she wants to do.
  6. Intimacy Vs. Isolation (early adulthood): Close relationships and intimacy are formed with others.
  7. Generativity Vs. Stagnation (middle adulthood): The adult is content with family life and work.
  8. Ego Integrity Vs. Despair (later adulthood): As one reviews one’s life as thoughts of death approaches, is the person satisfied or upset? (Dworetzky, 1990, p. 344)

The implications of this set of stages shows how an unresolved issue in an earlier stage can impact a person in later life. Erikson felt that a person would only move to the next stage of development if they successfully and healthfully complete the current stage one is in.

Other theorists have also contributed to early childhood development. Howard Gardner has hypothesized that there are seven areas of intelligence which people (children and adults) can be accomplished in. Intelligence is not just language and math, but also music, kinesthetics, spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal relations (Scherer, 1991, p. 21).  This impacts education by increasing the opportunities that teachers can provide for their students. B. F. Skinner (1991) has stressed that the environment is the source of all learning.

How do these theorists impact ECE teachers? Teachers are seen as supporters of development, with active learning necessary for a child’s cognitive development. Supporting a child’s core understanding allows new knowledge to be built (Hohmann, Banet, & Weikart, 1979, p.3). In other words, ECE provides a strong foundation that will support future learning. Natural communication between children and adults and between children will strengthen and extend language development. A teacher’s questioning and planning methods increase children’s exploration and self-discovery (Brickman & Taylor, 1991).

How does a teacher support all these stages of development in the classroom? What common principles and techniques are implemented? The main focus in ECE is the child’s growth in the domains of cognitive, language, physical, and interpersonal development (Abraham, Morris, & Wald, 1993, p.ix). A holistic approach is used, focusing on the following goals: to foster confidence as learners; encourage active participation; promote an ability to understand and appreciate others; encourage meaningful relationships with others; and to promote a mastery of skills and knowledge for later school success. Young children learn through active exploration; they construct knowledge from personal experiences.

A child-initiated, child-directed, teacher-supported play is part of Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP). What defines DAP is whether a program or activity is both age-appropriate (appropriate for the child’s chronological age, so expectations are not too high and inappropriate) and individually appropriate (the recognition that each child is unique and develops at his/her own pace, at an individual timing and pattern of growth). All experiences should match the developmental abilities of the children involved (Bredekamp, 1987). When DAP is followed, all areas are integrated in a holistic approach, based on the developmental milestones. Young children learn by doing; learning results from the interaction of children’s own thinking and their experiences in the world (Bredekamp, 1987). Young children acquire knowledge through playful interaction with objects and people; teachers of young children are their facilitators or guides. They prepare the environment to provide stimulating, challenging materials and activities. Teachers observe and then pose additional challenges to push children’s thinking further.

The ECE curriculum provides for all areas of development. Planning should be based on the children’s interests and progress and emphasize learning as interactive. Learning activities and materials should be real, concrete, and relevant to young children. Teachers should strive to meet the needs of all children, even if they are considered “outside” the normal developmental range. A variety of materials and activities should be available for the children’s use. Teachers should gradually increase the difficulty and challenge for each child as appropriate; teachers should also provide opportunities for children to choose and actively explore within the daily program. Teachers should ask questions or make suggestions to stimulate thinking (Bredekamp, 1987).

Themes chosen should focus on topics, subjects, and/or experiences that are of high interest to each specific group of children. The focus should be on the content of children’s immediate lives and experiences (Abraham, Morris, & Wald, 1993). Activities that simulate life outside the classroom are incorporated into each theme to allow children to see relationships between him/herself and other people, objects, and events (Abraham et al.1993).

The role of teacher is to be a link between the children and the curriculum. The teacher is facilitator, supporting and helping children work and play together, exploring the environment, discovering and practicing strategies. The teacher is also a bridge between home and school (Abraham et al. 1993).

Facilitation techniques encompass all areas of development. For example, there is no set time to teach language; it is taught within related context. Feedback and positive reinforcement are used as natural consequences. Language is most effectively learned in a naturalistic social context. Both adult-child and child-child interactions provide natural teaching opportunities. Techniques include: wait time, eye contact, modeling, narration, repetition of key concepts, expansion, prompting for word retrieval, and open-ended questions (Abraham et al.1993, pg. 88-92).

A positive self-concept is nurtured in an environment that unconditionally accepts each child and offers opportunities for success. Assigning children responsibilities (or “jobs”) teaches them that they are able and responsible. The teacher facilitates play by modeling; joining in children’s play at their level; structuring rules for behavior that are age appropriate and positive; structuring group times for success; and structuring transition times (Abraham et al. 1993, p. 93-105). When adults respond quickly and directly to children’s needs, they are helping children build trust. ECE teachers also provide varied opportunities to communicate, and they facilitate successful completion of tasks while also allowing children to learn from their mistakes. They facilitate development of self-esteem by respecting, accepting, and comforting children. They facilitate development of self-control in children through appropriate discipline, not punishment, and adults plan for the increasing independence as children gain new skills (Bredekamp, 1987, p. 9-12).

The classroom environment is structured to support the young children’s learning. The classroom is arranged into learning areas, with materials stored at children’s level so they can begin play and clean up as independently as they can. Activity areas facilitate interaction with others. The emphasis is on child-initiated play, with the teacher guiding the child through play experiences that he/she has chosen. Learning areas help children to organize and direct their thoughts and actions, and to make plans and carry through. Areas include: blocks, dramatic play, art, quiet area, discovery area, sand and water, construction, and an outdoor area (Abraham et al. 1993). The classroom environment is organized to support exploration, discovery, choice, active manipulation, and self-initiated exploration. The daily routine is predictable, consistent, and comfortable.

ECE environments are highly structured and organized, which teachers have carefully prepared and planned for. Teachers are in control of the environment, not of controlling the learners; children are actively involved and allowed to take responsibility for their learning (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1992).  Children’s learning begins in awareness, moves to exploration, then inquiry, and finally to utilization (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1992) – much like the experiential learning cycle. This whole-child philosophy and child-centered approach supports this development. Play is seen as a process, not about results.  Through play children internalize the world and make sense of it. Thought and imagination begin as a dialogue with another person (Bruner, 1991).

Teachers also participate in the assessment of the children. Assessments are used for instructional planning, to identify those who need more help or have special needs, for program evaluation, and to help maintain accountability (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1992). Assessment is done through observation, anecdotal records (notes of what has happened, for example, “04/24 – Jake demonstrated time concept when he said ‘When I get taller my wife’s favorite will be Minnie Mouse’), and portfolios (collections of artwork to keep track of progress). These are used to adequately plan future lessons, themes, and skill-based activities.

Just as NFE uses active learning, so also does ECE. Ingredients of active learning include: child’s choice, materials for various use, child’s manipulation of materials and situations, language, and adult recognition and encouragement of child’s problem-solving and creativity (Brickman & Taylor, 1991). Benefits of active learning include: giving a choice guarantees the children’s interest; the children gain self-confidence (no right ways and wrong ways, just problems to be solved); and as they become decision makers and problem solvers, they develop independence (Brickman, & Taylor, 1991).

Following is a brief summary of the key experiences that are used in an ECE program to support the areas of development.


Active Learning (Participatory Learning)

  • Explore with all senses

  • Discover relations through direct experience

  • Manipulate materials

  • Choice

  • Acquiring skills

  • Using large muscles

  • Taking care of own needs

Using Language (Dialogue)

  • Talking with others

  • Describing events, objects, relations

  • Expressing feelings in words

  • Own words written down and read back

  • Having fun with language

Representing Experiences and Ideas

  • Recognizing objects by sight, sound, smell, feel, taste

  • Imitating actions

  • Relating pictures etc to real places and things.

  • Role playing and pretending.

  • Making models

  • Drawing and painting.

Developing Logical Reasoning

– Classification – labeling, sort, match, same, different, using and describing something several ways, using more than one attribute at a time.

– Seriation – comparing, arranging in order.

– Number – comparing number and amount, number of items in two sets, counting by rote, one-to-one co-correspondence.

Understanding Time And Space

-Spatial relations- fitting together and taking apart, changing positions of things and observing difference, direction of movement, relative distances, one’s own body in relation to space. 

-Time – planning and completing what one has planed, describing past events, anticipating future events, starting and stopping action on signal, order of events, rates of movement, simple time units, comparing simple time periods, observing clocks, calendars, and seasons. (Hohmann, Banet, & Weikart, 1979, pp. 3-6).

Comparing NFE and ECE: A Case Example

The High/Scope Curriculum was designed as a result of an ongoing process in the late 1960s-early 1970s in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The essence of High/Scope is how adults interact with children. Adults are responsive and supportive of children’s learning and actions, they follow the children’s interests, share control with the children, and are attuned to the children’s level of understanding (Brickman, & Taylor, 1991).

The classroom is structured to follow DAP. There is a consistent daily routine every day so children can learn to expect what will happen and anticipate what will be next. While the arrangement of the routine is up to each teacher and what works best for each particular class, each routine includes the following:

1. Circle Time or Group Meeting – includes good morning, songs, stories, group games, and  reviewing the daily schedule.

2. Plan-Do-Review (P-D-R)

  • Planning Time – children choose which learning area they would like to play in; they plan what they will do and with who and what materials.

  • Work Time – also called Do; this is when children implement their plans and play in the learning centers with teachers providing support.

  • Clean-Up Time

  • Recall (Review) Time – children recall and review what they did. This allows them practice in reflecting on their actions and what happened.

3. Snack

4. Small Group – more structured activities are often planned.

5. Outside Time – to support gross motor development (Hohmann, et al. 1979).

This schedule demonstrates respect for the children’s interests and developmental needs while still providing structure for classroom management, which is a key design balance in NFE. The environment is rich in materials and opportunities for children to make a choice. Teachers model how to interact with materials and other people. Active learning – learning that is initiated by the child and carried out by him/her – is supported by allowing children to engage and explore what they are interested in (Hohmann, et al. 1979).

The Plan-Do-Review part of the day is in some ways the most important (though some children would say it is snack). Planning time helps children see they can make things happen for themselves (Brickman & Taylor, 1991). It helps them develop an understanding of time; develop language skills; and gives them opportunities to acknowledge and use their own moods and feelings in constructive ways (Brickman, & Taylor, 1991). Recall time encourages the process of looking back to become more natural. It allows children to review their experiences and gives them opportunities to initiate and reflect on their actions. This reflection is important for later learning.

The classroom environment in High/Scope is set up with well-defined learning areas. Materials that are open-ended and which can be used for many purposes are included in each area. These materials are stored in the reach of children and in easy to see containers; this allows children to decide, use, and clean up independently. All shelves and materials are labeled so children can match objects to pictures and be as independent in their cleanup as they are in their play (Hohmann et al. 1979).

The teachers’ role in the High/Scope classroom is to facilitate children’s plans. They recognize and support each child’s work. They help children extend their plans and ideas. Teachers also help children deal with conflicts, or when they want to change their plans.  As we have compared NFE and ECE, we can see that many of the techniques and principles of NFE are practiced in the High/Scope ECE classroom.

To continue our comparison, many writings on NFE describe programs using the same language that is used to discuss ECE. For example, Boudin (1993), while describing an NFE program with women, noted that the women involved began to take risks because they were no longer afraid to. Participating in NFE had given them the confidence to be active in their situation. The program itself was described as being meaning-driven and problem posing, using a whole-language approach) to analyze the participants’ experiences (Boudin, 1993). The use of peer learners, where everyone learns from each other, was a concept valued in the NFE program. To compare, the whole-language approach is similar to the holistic approach of ECE.  Analyzing the adult learners’ experiences parallels the Plan, Do, and Review technique of reflecting on one’s actions. In ECE, children are supported and encouraged to try; they play together and learn from each other just like the use of peer learners in NFE. The problem-posing approach in NFE encompasses ECE; everything is a problem for children to find the solution.

NFE programs set up the learning environment to facilitate interaction and communication. This includes arranging seating so both participants and teachers are sitting together in a circle rather than rows of seats with the teacher in the front. This technique supports the idea that teachers and participants are all equal, in a sharing relationship where all can learn something and teach something. Within ECE, teachers sit on the floor with children, interacting and playing with them at the children’s level. In both programs, the learners are shown respect for their participation.

When discussing community health education, Werner and Bower (1982) discuss ways to help participants gain greater control over their own health and lives. To support this, teachers need to adapt to the people’s traditional ways of learning – what they are used to and enjoy. In ECE, teachers know that children learn through play, so they adapt and provide learning experiences through fun activities and a play environment.

Werner and Bower (1982) also discuss the need to adapt each course to meet the experience and needs of each new group of students; the participants themselves can do some of the course planning.  In ECE, each class (and individual child) is different, so teachers need to plan activities and materials appropriately. Children can help plan; use what they are interested in for themes and units (for example, dinosaurs, farms, zoo, my family). The more involved the learner is (whether and adult or young child), the more equal, interested, and relevant the program will be.

Other concepts are also similar between NFE and ECE. Once a child masters a concept, then teachers can then teach them what the concept is called (for example, size or position words), but learning the label alone does not mean that they understand the concept (Hohmann, et al. 1979). Relating to NFE, adults also learn better when they have an understanding of the concepts being taught. For example, literacy programs are more successful when the words and topics being explored are interesting to the learners (exploring health-related words with a community interested in health care), and when learners understand the concepts the words symbolize. ECE teachers model appropriate behavior and play experiences for the children, just like NFE teachers use methods and techniques which they want participants to continue using.

When I look back at Knowles’ comparison of pedagogy and andragogy, it is easy to conclude that both NFE and ECE fall into the andragogical model. Most adults don’t realize that many of the techniques, active materials, and principles that they are using are the same as what preschool children are experiencing. I find it ironic that learning experiences at both ends of life are so similar, while learning during the school years has become more restrictive and focused on the end products of test scores and grades. It is a shame that during the school age years this process of learning has often been forgotten.


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