Friday, Mar. 16th 2018

Child’s play: Head Start can lead the way in creating smarter learning spaces indoors and out

By Tiffany Alston
President, Nevada Head Start Association

An amazing attribute about Head Start and another advantage: Since programs across the country are community-based and culturally reflective, they can easily incorporate new theories about early childhood education, absorbing from parents and community.

More and more, Head Start programs are holistically linking education and environment: Allowing learning to flow both indoors and outdoors and using curriculum—especially STEM—outside as well as inside during play time. In a child’s world, play time is really learning time, too.

What the experts in education tell us is this: “For human beings, learning is as fundamental as life itself. From the moment we are born up through age three, our brains create 700 new neural connections each second.”1

A Head Start classroom, then, should be a space that encourages exploration, experimentation—of making connections. The learning spaces also need to reflect their respective communities and be uplifting for the young students, their parents and teachers.

“It is more important than ever for school districts, administrators and educational designers/architects to reevaluate the traditional pre-K or kindergarten classroom to provide more creative, engaging and specialized early childhood learning spaces,” says architect Stephen M. Nelson.

Today, neuroscience and our professional instincts tell us to aspire beyond portable classrooms in temporary settings.  We must strive for quality places for teaching youngsters.

Nearly a century ago, famed educator Dr. Maria Montessori said, “Plainly, the environment must be a living one, directed by a higher intelligence, arranged by an adult who is prepared for this mission… developmentally across, including but not limited to the physical, emotional, social and cognitive planes of growth.”

Since Montessori penned those words, ensuing research has certainly proven her point. Consider these observations that support the idea of holistic learning and play:

  • The classroom should be the outdoors in miniature. The outdoors should be the classroom magnified.2
  • Research has shown the long-term benefits of high-quality play-based kindergarten programs, where children are exposed to learning and problem solving through self-initiated activities and teacher guidance.3
  • Research has also identified young children in direct-instruction programs can experience negative effects. These include stress, decreased motivation for learning, and behavior problems.3
  • The answer involves how young children learn. Scientists will tell you that as children explore their world, they create neural connections. The act of touching, smelling, or even tasting that wrapping paper…actually creates new pathways in the brain.4
  • “Children learn through process, not product,” says Gabriella Rowe, head of school at The Village School in Houston, “Instead of providing toy castles, we want them to build their own castles. If you give a child something prefabricated, there is no process and there is no learning.”5

For Head Start educators here in Nevada, we are particularly excited by the opening of the new Head Start facility in Reno operated by the Community Services Agency. The facility—a converted bank—brings together inside and outside components of play-based learning.

A large wall of windows lets in natural lighting—under which children learn better. Bright colors and sensorial aspects are appropriate for young children. The facility is filled with learning opportunities on child scale, and large spaces accommodate adult engagement. Even the bank safe has been re-envisioned as a safe, warm, comforting space for children who have sensory issues. The bank’s drive-in area has been converted to outside play space.

And another big plus important for Head Start’s original mission. The bank building is located in a redevelopment district—project fees were discounted—so the renovation amounts to a real investment in children by the Reno community.

If you are interested in learning more about how the new center was built, Head Start administrator Kristen DeMara will share her experiences during a Region 9 Head Start Association webinar, Facility Development, 3-4 p.m. PDT, March 20. (If you miss the live presentation, it can be downloaded for review later from

Another new approach to child-directed learning that has caught the eye of Head Start community is called Anji Play, the internationally-recognized philosophy and approach to early learning developed and tested over the past 16 years by educator Cheng Xueqin.

Through sophisticated practices, site-specific environments, unique materials and integrated technology, the Anji Play ecology of learning is quickly establishing itself as a new global standard for early childhood education and redefining understandings of learning, cognitive development and design.

Developed in Anji County, China, the curriculum serves more than 14,000 children from ages 3 to 6. Anji Play also has pilot programs at community college lab schools, private not-for-profit sites and public library and community programs in the United States.

Anji Play has a refreshing mission: To return the right of self-determined play to children and communities in an environment defined by love, risk, joy, engagement and reflection. Children lead their own play and self-expression. They chose what, where and with whom to play, creating self-determination in play and ownership of discovery.

“In today’s fast-changing world, nothing is more important than the ability to think and act creatively,” says Dr. Mitchel Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research, MIT. “I see Anji Play as an international leader in preparing today’s children for life in tomorrow’s society.”

You will be able to learn more about Anji Play from its creator herself: R9HSA is very pleased to present Cheng Xueqin as a featured speaker association’s The Early Childhood STEM Institute, May 7-9, 2018 at The Garland Hotel, North Hollywood, Calif.

With R9HSA educational presentations like these, the Head Start community is in an enviable position to open new discussions and show the way for creating better learning environments for young people. When children are free to explore and experiment in an environment that nurtures learning—this is actually a celebration of what it means to be alive.

Besides being the Nevada Head Start Association President, Tiffany Alston is the Community Engagement Manager at the Sunrise Children’s Foundation, Las Vegas, and a member of the Region 9 Head Start Association Board of Directors.


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All children, regardless of their circumstance at birth, deserve a full and prosperous life.

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  • Support high-impact Head Start programs for children and adults by creating opportunities for collaboration, networking and information sharing.
  • Unite with state and national Head Start organizations to ensure regulatory and budget outcomes that support our work.
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