What it Looks Like to Promote Young Children's Growth and Discovery

Stories and Resources for Early Education Leaders
Dec. 18, 2019

About this Project

Research shows that teaching and learning environments for young children are most effective when they are based on findings from the science of child development, which include but are not limited to the provision of opportunities for children to engage in hands-on exploration, question-asking, and discovery; positive relationships and enriching back-and-forth social interactions; and targeted and personalized instruction that is tailored to a child's specific needs, growth, and development across multiple domains and subject areas.

What does this look like in practice? The following project, which is informed by the learning sciences and inspired by the Ideal Learning Principles published by the Trust for Learning, is designed to provide stories and portraits from classrooms and other learning environments. We will update this special section throughout 2019, highlighting recent articles and reports from New America authors, writing and reports from other outlets, and books, videos, and other resources for education leaders.

Our Writing

In our recent articles and reports, we at New America analyze current trends in early education while telling stories and painting portraits of teaching and learning environments that support young children's growth and discovery.

Source: Shutterstock

Learning to Read Can Be a Joy—If It's Taught Right

Laura Bornfreund, April 30, 2020

Tools of the Mind takes a more well-rounded approach to learning, combining structured reading instruction with opportunities for children to develop executive function skills.

Children in a Tools of the Mind preschool classroom pretend to be doctors.
Source: Children's Aid, PS 152 in Washington Heights, NYC

Scientific American: Boosting Kids' Executive Function and Oral Language Skills

Lisa Guernsey, October 1, 2019

An article in the October issue of Scientific American, “How to Prime Preschoolers for Success,” features examples from scientific studies on teaching methods that have long-lasting effects.

What to look for

In classrooms with 3 to 6 year olds, look for:

  • Children articulating plans, following through, and recalling what they want do, what materials they will use, how they will use those materials and who they want to play with during child-initiated times of the day.
  • Teachers expanding and extending children’s plans and abilities to recall their plans through thoughtful open-ended questioning and conversations to enhance children’s executive functions skills (working memory and mental flexibility).
  • Children actively engaged in problem solving with materials and resolving social conflicts with one another.
  • Children engaging in cooperative and complex play with increasing language skills.
  • Teachers down on children’s level, playing as partners, following their lead and scaffolding on their learning.
  • Teachers and children sharing control throughout the daily routine. Meaning, teachers plan the day, but children contribute their ideas, thoughts, and actions according to their own developmental levels of learning.

-- Shannon Lockhart, associate director of the early childhood group at the HighScope Educational Research Foundation. See more.

Source: Routledge, 2019

New Book Features Examples of Using Media to Create Critical Thinkers

Lisa Guernsey, August 12, 2019

The book helps to shine a light on the role of early media literacy and the need to set the foundation for building critical-thinking skills so that children can become savvy consumers and creators in this media-driven world.


Source: Shutterstock

This Playful Pre-K is No Longer Sole Purview of the Elite

Aaron Loewenberg, June 3, 2019

Reggio Emilia is an educational philosophy that prioritizes play-based, hands-on learning over a prescribed curriculum. The city of Boston is working to expand equitable access to Reggio-inspired early learning.

What to look for

In classrooms for children 3 to 6 years old, seek signs of:

  • Children engaged in small group projects using a variety of materials and media
  • Children giving and receiving feedback about their work with peers and adults
  • Classrooms with documentation on the wall narrating the work and thinking of children
  • Teachers taking notes, photos, and videos of the work children are involved in

-- Marina Boni, program director in the Boston Public Schools Department of Early Childhood. See more.

Source: Taken at Breakthrough Montessori Public Charter School. Photographer, Katie Jett Walls.

How Jeff Bezos Can Make Good on the Promise of Montessori Schools

Lisa Guernsey, March 7, 2019

Six months ago, Jeff Bezos pledged to donate money to create a "Montessori-inspired" preschool network. This will require attention to research on Montessori programs, visits to schools, and a recognition that creating rich learning environments for children takes dedicated training and a deep understanding of child development.

Reprinted in the Pacific Standard on March 8, 2019

What to look for

In classrooms for children 3 to 6 years old, seek signs of:

  • Children absorbed in what they are doing, not distracted by other things happening around them.
  • Children given opportunities to be independent and take responsibility for their environment.
  • Classrooms that are free of clutter; walls that are not papered with ABCs, posters, and charts.
  • Teachers using a natural voice not a “teacher voice.”
  • Social interactions between children in which they ask each other questions and learn from each other.

-- Katie Brown, DC Regional Coordinator at National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. See more.

Source: New America

A Focus on Teaching and Learning in Pre-K through 2nd Grade: Lessons from Boston

Laura Bornfreund and Aaron Loewenberg, November 29, 2018

This report explains the work that has taken place over the last decade in Boston to improve and reform pre-K through 1st and 2nd grades. It is a story of realizing that the work of increasing student achievement is not confined to a single grade, but requires sustained efforts to improve the grades that follow.

Source: Shutterstock

Extracting Success in Pre-K Teaching: Approaches to Effective Professional Learning Across Five States

Abbie Lieberman, Shayna Cook, Sarah Jackson, April 30, 2018

High-quality professional learning can help pre-K teachers develop the knowledge and competencies needed to best serve young students.

What to look for

In professional development, seek signs of:

  • Educators playing, exploring, and tinkering together.
  • Educators trying out new tools and resources before putting them in front of children.
  • Peer-to-peer exchanges and conversation.
  • Ongoing PD: Educators coming together over weeks, months, and years to practice, share, and reflect on what works.

-- Tamara Kaldor, associate director of the Technology and Early Childhood Center at Erikson Institute. See more.

Recent Writing from Other Outlets

Books and Other Resources

Position statements and consensus documents:


Toolkits and Websites:

Related Topics
Early & Elementary Education K-3 Pre-K