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The Benefits of Interdisciplinary Learning in Early Childhood Education

As I walked through a second-grade classroom, I saw children talking in small groups about what they wanted to investigate after a recent walking trip to their community lake. The students had previous discussions about the lake’s resources and assets based on extensive research. The students analysed the impact of environmentally conscientious practices and studied habitats and preservation advocacy. Findings were documented and visually displayed in the classroom. The teacher used higher-level questions, which promoted thinking and solving problems as students worked on their projects and made authentic connections.

The study topic was Community. In a preschool classroom down the hall, children worked in centres associated with their town. The various centres were transformed into the local barber shop, art gallery, grocery store, a local restaurant, and doctor’s office. The preschoolers voted upon these areas after visiting some sites in town and taking virtual field trips. The children used props they created as well as materials already available in centres to support their play with a focus on community. Community members added genuine items from their businesses to assist in authenticating the children’s play. The relatable topic succeeded in keeping all the children engaged. The children’s writing, mathematics, creative arts, science, social studies, and literacy experiences are connected to the study. Learning standards from various domains were addressed, and the classroom environment included relevant artefacts through visuals, community donations, natural resources, and realia.

Figure 1

An Early Childhood Classroom Demonstrating Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning

Research indicates that an interdisciplinary approach to learning is more meaningful to children and provides positive outcomes. Multidisciplinary education is predominantly found in high-quality preschool classrooms implementing a holistic and comprehensive research-based curriculum. There is less evidence of interdisciplinary learning in kindergarten through grade three classrooms. Rather than integrating learning standards within study topics or a project-based approach, many teachers have followed curricula where subjects are compartmentalised. Combining topics within studies creates more profound and more coherent conceptual frameworks for children rather than learning the subject matter in isolation. Fragmented understanding occurs when the content matter is presented in separate blocks of time. Higher-level inferences are made when more connections are made through interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Learning that connects children to the real world provides a meaningful context for content areas such as literacy and mathematics.

There are early childhood programs where teachers have the leverage and capability to create a holistic curriculum based on interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Goals related to grade-specific learning standards are addressed through meaningful projects that spark children’s curiosity, creativity, and a sense of purpose. Depth of Knowledge (DoK) provides teachers with a framework to deepen thinking during these studies/projects. Students think, and teachers use higher-order questioning to facilitate learning while integrating content matter. The cognitive complexity challenges students as they learn. The extended time to study a topic supports building background knowledge, language and vocabulary development, and overall comprehension.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) highlights interdisciplinary teaching. It emphasises using informational texts in social studies and science to promote authentic, purposeful multidisciplinary learning. Studies show that using texts for a purpose within an interdisciplinary approach can be more effective in learning literacy than following a traditional curricular model that separates reading and writing from other content areas. Engagement is heightened in early childhood classrooms when children are involved in authentic learning experiences. Children involved in decisions about what they are curious about in the world will be more engaged because they utilise their interests.

Depth of learning is achieved in early childhood education through an interdisciplinary approach. Some meaningful projects at the early childhood level encompass topics such as community, weather/seasons, sustainability, and animals. Travelling to other places through virtual excursions also provides an effective way for children to synthesise, analyse information, compare, evaluate and create solutions to existing problems. When communication, collaboration, creativity and community connections are encouraged, children learn critical work and life skills. Young children must explore and investigate with a teacher who guides this meaningful learning process.

Recommendations for Early Childhood Education Programs

  • Connect with curriculum experts and community members to plan for meaningful studies and projects.

  • Provide time for teachers to develop research-based interdisciplinary curricula based on their speciality areas.

  • Plan developmentally appropriate measurable learning outcomes and intentional academic vocabulary integration.

  • Support from leadership for an interdisciplinary approach to extend and deepen learning; and encourage teachers to base lessons on children’s interests, current events, and resources in their social and cultural contexts.

  • Consult with exceptional teachers and other educators to provide opportunities where they can build upon learning based on their areas of expertise.

  • Create a library of informational developmentally appropriate texts to support background building in areas of study.

  • Since many K-3 programs are heavily based on literacy and mathematics, more professional development is needed on how to integrate subject areas while still supporting children’s development and learning in core areas.

  • Invite speakers from diverse cultures and backgrounds to deepen learning and gain perspectives.

Author Bio: Dr. Renee Whelan is an Instructional coach and professor. She has over 25 years of early childhood educational experience, concentrating on curriculum, assessment, community partnerships and professional learning as well as years of fiscal review and budgetary experience. She has served as an early childhood teacher, instructional coach, early childhood education program specialist for the New Jersey Department of Education, building principal, director of early childhood, and professor. Her research interests include early childhood mathematics and literacy, STEAM, sustainability, teacher leadership, one on one conferencing, and cognitive coaching.

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