Rethinking the developmental learning process

February 27, 2012

Children and Teens

Many children — as early as preschool age — report being stressed and overwhelmed. Parents report concerns over their children’s lack of self-esteem and confidence.

by Vanessa Chamberlain — 

Over the last decade, mental health professionals, childhood advocates, parents and educators alike, have reported a decreased satisfaction in the way we teach our children. Further, and perhaps more importantly, our children are letting us know very loudly and clearly through their behaviors (childhood’s primary language) that rote, standardized, end-user academics simply are not the way to inspire lifelong learning.

From toys to academic curricula, children today are given the end-product right away — in order to be entertained (e.g., electronic toys) or for rote memorization of a concept. Recently, we have become more interested in the effects of providing these fixed, unidimensional and meaningless experiences as we witness unprecedented rates of psychiatric childhood diagnoses: ADHD, ADD, low-frustration tolerance, etc.; health-related diseases (obesity, type 2 diabetes, sleep disorders, etc.); learning disabilities; lack of creativity, imagination and perseverance; low self-esteem; and overall childhood depression.

Do children want to be hands-on and take part in the process of creation and discovery, or do they want the quick fix? Are children really playing when they are holding an electronic toy? Are they really learning when they are acquiring facts via rote memorization? For all of our acclaimed technological advancements, are our children truly benefiting from being informational end-users?

Many children — as early as preschool age — report being stressed and overwhelmed. Parents report concerns over their children’s lack of self-esteem and confidence. Despite the fact that we are living in a time — economic recession and all — when children have access to more technology and entertainment than ever, many children are exhibiting disturbing signs of apathy, boredom and depression.

Perhaps the pendulum has swung a bit too far and we, in small ways, are robbing our children of the joys of childhood. Are we giving them too much, too soon? Are our expectations that they begin academic training at increasingly earlier ages undermining a real need for unstructured, rambunctious and wild free play? We might have something to learn from the “Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”

Childhood advocates are not only challenging parents to evaluate their home lives, but they also are strongly urging parents to question how their children are being educated outside the home. Vast differences exist among institutionalized schools and alternative educational environments. Educational advocacy requires that parents and caregivers become knowledgeable about their options.

The majority of institutionalized schools implement standardized curricula, and teachers are mandated to “teach to the test.” Rote memorization is taught as the primary means for acquiring knowledge. Students often are expected to sit for long periods of time absorbing material, which actually has the potential of being immensely captivating — if presented in a multidimensional way.

Rather than utilizing developmentally appropriate, hands-on, experiential methods to stimulate children toward their innate desire to learn, children are forced to memorize meaningless facts. Then they quickly become labeled as learning disabled when they manifest common symptoms of end-user academics.

Rote memorization (learning devoid of comprehensive understanding of a subject) has traditionally been utilized for material that requires quick recall. Rote learning is more superficial in nature, as one memorizes only that which is required for a test and/or immediate project. While rote memorization has its place in education, its use is inappropriate in early childhood when learning is based in sensory exploration.

Conceptual learning (the ability to conjure up an idea and image for integrated understanding of a concept) is developmentally appropriate in later childhood and adolescence. In today’s culture, we are building on children’s capacity for conceptual learning before experiential learning has ever occurred.

Bear in mind that children have the innate potential to learn conceptually, but they require the developmental building blocks comprised of experiential, hands-on, imaginative, relevant and integrated learning before they can successfully accomplish conceptual learning tasks. Chronic problems can occur when children are asked to perform from a capacity that is not reflective of their realities.

Holistic education supports the congruence between children’s innate capacities and the reality of their learning environment. Holistic education involves the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual processes of the learner. We know children have the capacity to grow each of these body-mind-spirit areas into full potential. Holistic educators trust that development takes time to unfold and, therefore, do not attempt to rush this delicate process.

Childhood is a sacred time, the perfect opportunity to engage the child’s imagination, will and determination, as well as inherent curiosity about the world. Children should be provided freedom to explore, to question, to create. They should be afforded a process of discovery in which they gently unfold — in their own time, according only to Mother Nature.


Vanessa Chamberlain is the director of the Cultural Wellness and Family Enrichment Center and Wild World Education., or 602-432-3707.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 29, Number 1, Feb/Mar 2010.

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