Seedlings hard at work

What if your child’s first educational experience didn’t just prepare them for kindergarten? 

What if it prepared them for life?

 We ask this question a lot, but what does it mean? 

What is the ultimate goal of early childhood education? How about the goal of K-12 education? College? Job training?

This is what preparing children for life means to me…

First, some background: I don’t have children and I’m not an early education specialist. In fact, I have no formal education on the subject. My area of relative expertise is adult workplace learning and jobs skills training, so I see the field of early childhood ed from a different perspective than most of the people I work with here at Sunflower. I see the long-range ramifications of the learning experiences that young children have. I wonder about how learning to climb a tree all on their own or covering their faces with brightly colored paint will impact the more practical life skills of our students, not how these experiences will impact their academic futures (not to say that those are unimportant). 

Now for some details
For me education, especially early childhood education, is all about learning how to learn. Developing the qualities that make for good learners (which are not necessarily the same qualities that make good students).  

During my time studying and working in the field of adult workplace learning, I put together a list of the qualities I felt adult learners needed in order to be efficient and effective learners. I developed this list by watching how learners failed or succeeded and which personal skills seemed to be the most important to their learning outcome. I also paid attention to students who seemed to be struggling, and tried to identify what was standing in their way.

I never worried about where the personal qualities that made for the best learners came from, after all my area of interest was grounded squarely in the adult learning realm. But then I came to work at Sunflower, and without even trying I started seeing it: young children developing the very qualities I had found to be the most helpful to adult learners.

A young knight

A young knight

fairy 2

Imagination at work

Here’s how it happened
I’ve watched children involved in deep imaginative play, playing both solo and in groups, creating realities with rules that mimic the real world and realities with rules all of their own creation. These games help children develop strong verbal skills, logic and reasoning, and interpersonal communication strategies. All wonderful benefits, but what really stood-out to me was the long-term benefits of the practiced imaginations these children were developing. Previously I had come to the conclusion that a strong imagination was one of the most important tools for effective adult learning. Being able to use imagination to make material feel relevant and personal is one of the best shortcuts for moving material to long-term memory (the goal of the learning process). We remember best what we do (not what we read or what we are told), and in situations where hands-on learning simply is not possible or practical, using our imagination is the next best option.

 Seeing children developing strong and practiced imaginations was marvelous, but it turned out to be just the beginning of what I would discover while observing our Seedlings.    

The imagination is a muscle. If it is not exercised, it atrophies. –Neil Gaiman

Cause and effect
The next quality I watched the children developing was an understanding of cause and effect. For adult learners, having a strong grasp on how cause and effect works is fundamentally important for the learning process.

Experimenting with watercolor ice cubes to see cause and effect

Experimenting with watercolor ice cubes to see cause and effect

It helps the learner problem solve, by being able to mentally reverse the process of what happened, to analyze the cause that resulted in the observed effect. Allowing them to discover where something went wrong.  One of the things I discovered while working with adult learners was that a real understanding of cause and effect is not nearly as universal as I had assumed. While tutoring managerial accounting in college I decided that the reason most of the students who came to me were struggling was their poor grasp of cause and effect. They were at a significant disadvantage when it came to interpreting the meaning of the numbers because they could not figure out what the possible causes might be for the effect they were seeing.

Giving young children the opportunity to discover cause and effect and explore all of the possible effects that they can cause, as well as what can be altered to see different results, helps give them a foundational grasp on a very important concept. We need to give them lots chances to make these discoveries, and not just situations of our own design, we need to give them the opportunity to create their own experiments, come up with their own causes and see what happens.

Seedlings Experimenting

Seedlings Experimenting

After watching the children experimenting with cause and effect I started to actively look for the roots of some of the other qualities of good adult learners I had identified: good communication and social skills, critical thinking, curiosity, and not fearing failure. In the end I found the roots of them all. 

boys and playdaough

Communication and problem solving

Communication and social skills are being developed and strengthened during cooperative play. Children work to better explain themselves, to get their way, when they want their turn on a swing or with a shovel, when they have to solve a conflict or agree on the rules of a game. A child-led learning environment provides all of these opportunities. It gives children the space to develop their communication skills naturally, not based on how the adults around them think they should be communicating. Giving children the space and time to find the answers to good communication on their own provides a more authentic learning experience. It makes the lessons they learn about communication part of the fabric of their very being, not just something told to them over and over and eventually forgotten. 

Without good communication skills adult learners struggle to share their ideas, ask questions and fully partake in the learning experience. They are unable to help their fellow learners or work as part of a team.       

Critical thinking
Adult learners need to be able to critically analyze new information to help them in their learning journey. Critical thinking is one of the key components of reading comprehension. It helps learners discriminate between meaningful and extraneous information, so that they can focus their time and energy in the right place. And it helps them figure how and when to apply what they have learned in real world situations. 

Typical moment in Seedlings

Typical moment in Seedlings

Our Seedlings are developing their critical thinking skills every day, in a truly child-led learning environment. They are free to decide how they will spend their time during Seedlings, moving from one activity to the next, inventing games and creating pretend worlds. This learning autonomy is all about making decisions, considering the options and choosing which is the most desirable. Every time a child goes through the process of deciding what to do next or how to handle an unexpected situation or an unforeseen result they are practicing the use of their critical thinking skills. Listening to a story (made up or from a book) gives them the opportunity for reading comprehension and literacy skills.  

Critical Thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better. –Richard W. Paul 

Curiosity in action

Curiosity in action

Curiosity is a fundamental component of the learning process, regardless of age. It is the route of the intrinsic desire to learn. The drive to learn is something that we are born with; it’s why babies learn to sit up, walk and talk without being “taught.” It continues to drive us throughout our lives. As we move from infancy to young childhood we begin calling it curiosity. We marvel at the drive to KNOW that young children have, asking hundreds of questions a day. Adult-directed learning environments erode this desire to learn, telling children that what they are most curious about isn’t what they should be thinking about right now. This teaches them that their curiosity is wrong (if this happens enough, that intrinsic curiosity about the world becomes stifled). This is one of the reasons child-led early education environments are so important, encouraging children to ask ALL of their questions and search for their own answers is an experience they will be able to call on for the rest of their lives.

Process not product

Process, not product

Fearing Failure
I discovered the roots of not fearing failure in a place I wasn’t expecting: art. One of the primary components of Sunflower philosophy is the importance of process-oriented art, the idea that the process of creating is more valuable than the product (from an educational/developmental prospective). While I loved the idea of process-based art and found many wonderful and unexpected benefits to it, what was most remarkable to me was finding an answer to something that had baffled me. How do you teach children not to be afraid of failing? How do you teach them to take risks, to leap without knowing if they’ll land? It turns out one way is through process-oriented art.

When an art project is about the process of creating, of discovering, when it isn’t about a product that can be right or wrong, there is no risk of failure. Children learn to embrace the experiment; they learn to take risks and try new things without fear that they may get it wrong, because in this situation there is no such thing as wrong.  

No such thing as failure

No such thing as failure

For adult learners the fear of failure can be paralyzing; it makes people scared to try new things or answer questions if they aren’t 100% sure of the answer, and it can shut down the learning process all together. If learners are fearful, they are not curious, they can’t think critically, and they struggle to communicate. In short, fear undermines all of the other qualities that make good learners, making it fundamentally necessary to find ways of alleviating the fear or, better yet, preventing the fear from developing to begin with.     


Learning requires a sense of safety. Fear blocks learning. Shame and embarrassment, stress and anxiety—these block learning. –Pam Sorooshian

Opening the door to learning

Opening the door to learning

Seeing the roots of the learning qualities, I had previously identified, in Sunflower’s programs has been a fascinating discovery for me, and has made me all the more committed to supporting and promoting the wonderful benefits of early childhood programs like Sunflower’s. Because, to me, raising life-long learners is the most important thing we can do. In today’s world of changing industries and jobs, adults need to able to learn independently. They need to be efficient and effective learners so that it isn’t prohibitively expensive to retrain them. And on a lighter note, adults should be able to appreciate the simple joy of learning.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. –Alvin Toffler 


Post by Meade Peers McCoy
Photos by Meade Peers McCoy, Luanda Guisti and Jaime Greenberg

Meade is Director of Special Projects and Strategic Initiatives at Sunflower Creative Arts, which means that she gets to learn something new every day. She helps build websites, takes pictures of children at play, bakes yummy things and occasionally writes blog posts about what she is learning at Sunflower.