By Molly Breen
I like to fly fish. I love standing in a stream or river, casting and mending my line over and over in a dance with the drift and my fly . . . and hopefully a trout! When I began fly fishing, a family friend coached me through his best strategy for actually landing some fish: “Fish the closest water first and then work your way out.” I think about this advice all the time. All. The. Time. It’s applicable to so many situations: Lose your keys? Fish the closest water first (look in the most obvious places). Want to get a new job? Fish the closest water first (start by asking your closest friends and colleagues). Hoping to create meaningful learning experiences for your students? Fish the closest water first! Believe me, this metaphor does apply to teaching and learning in early education.
One thing we know for certain about students at any age is that learning happens in the context of 1.) relationships and 2.) direct experience. Just ask Lev Vygotsky. Nowhere in the arena of early care and education is this better expressed than in Reggio, Italy in the preschools of Reggio Emilia. Many of us are familiar with what is often referred to as “Reggio-inspired” programs here in the U.S. Hallmarks of this approach and pedagogy include an emergent curriculum facilitated by expert teachers, child-centered and aesthetic environments, a focus on nature-based learning, and a great deal of family and community involvement, to highlight just a few. Founded in post-World War II Italy, Reggio programs emerged when the community rallied around its youngest citizens to provide a wonderful education despite desperate times. The result these many years later is a sustained belief in the power of relationships and experiences to help foster the “100 Languages” of children. What does Reggio Emilia have to do with my fly fishing metaphor?
In our work with young children, we often fish the farthest waters first when we plan our shared learning. And I don’t just mean learning about far-away places. I mean we buy drop-in curriculum and we browse the internet to find far-away resources that will make learning come to life in our classrooms. While these are valuable resources to be sure (internet, I love you), we often overlook the immense and rich resources that are in the closest waters: our communities. Reggio Emilia preschools set the tone by taking children out of the classroom and into the community, not only so that they may explore, learn, and build curiosity about the world around them, but also so that the children may be seen as important citizens. It is possible to build this approach into your own program, even if you are not Reggio-inspired. It’s really just a matter of fishing the closest water first and then working your way out.
Here are five ways to use your local community as a resource for teaching and learning:
- Fish the closest water! Work together with staff and your parent community to brainstorm which local businesses and programs would be relevant for your projects and planned learning. Create a personal letter or email which explains the mission of your program (and the evidence-based benefits of early childhood education) to send out, asking for opportunities to visit with children or to invite visitors in.
- Make it easy. Create a resource inventory for families to fill out at the beginning of the year/time of enrollment. Ask parents and caregivers what specialty knowledge or skills they might be willing to share as expert visitors in your setting. Create a flexible online sign-up form or calendar that is easily accessible and allows families to participate in your planned learning as visiting experts or just extra hands on deck.
- Take preschool on the road. Set up an outdoor classroom for a day in a public place within your community—the library lawn or in a public park (make sure there are bathrooms available somewhere nearby!). Invite known neighbors to come read to children throughout the day or to eat lunch with you.
- Invite the community in. Follow up your letter or email with an invitation for business owners, local politicians, and other community members to come visit your school to see what you are up to. Plan a shared activity like an art project or circle dance for your visitors. Then, allow the children to “interview” visitors with a few planned questions. Use voice recordings or take video for the children to listen to or watch the interviews later.
- Stay open to possibilities. As teachers and administrators, we are in service to a dynamic and changing set of needs for each new wave of students and families. When we keep our minds open to possibilities that take us out of the classroom and into the community—urban, suburban, rural, wherever you may be—we multiply our resource list exponentially. In my experience, people are always happy to work with us in or out of school, both family members and community members. Get creative with how you fish your close waters, and there is no doubt that you’ll land some big fish.
Molly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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