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The Importance of a Strong Foundation

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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“We’re building a home up the street.”

It felt like a lie to give that explanation over and over to the strangers who had become our new neighbors, because for the longest time, the truth was that nothing was being built.

We went forward with a plan to build a new home in the new area we were moving to, an endeavor that the project manager estimated would be completely done by the end of September, only to be waiting for building permits until mid-October.

October.  The start of the rainy season.  And the rainy season is no joke here in the Pacific Northwest.

We had places to stay in the midst of all our building delays, but I felt a bit like a nomadic wanderer as we moved three times between the time we sold our last home and finally finished the next, never fully unpacking and settling during the 18 month long transition.

So, to say that I was anxious for our home to be built, and to start functioning as a place where we could finally put down roots, is a bit of an understatement.  My nesting instincts, my mother bear instincts, and whatever other animal-inspired instincts all dog-piled together, driving me compulsively toward finishing that house and settling in with my brood.

That’s why that Monday in the middle of October was such a big day.

Foundation Day.

My boys stood atop a dirt pile and watched with rapt attention as a cement truck rolled in and sludgy cement slid down the shoot and out of the pump, filling up the foundation walls that would hold up our home.

Finally. The building process had begun.

Passionate about early education and child development, I find foundations to be particularly interesting.  Their function is critical.  They’re carefully designed, prepared, inspected, formed, poured, reinforced, inspected again, sealed….. and then, after all of that, almost totally covered back up with dirt.

Other than the heavy machinery, there was still no visible evidence of a house to be seen from the road that day.  And in the months since the home’s completion, not one person has ever arrived at our home and commented on how much they love what we did with the foundation.

In the middle of that building process, I was so anxious to see a home standing in that spot of dirt.  Not lines of cement.  I wanted a home I could cook in, sleep in, gather in, live in.  And I would have loved to see that home spring up right now.

But not so much that I’d skip building the foundation.

The foundation is what keeps us firmly planted.  A house doesn’t just sit on the foundation, it’s securely attached.  Every 18 inches around the perimeter of the house there’s a large bolt embedded in the cement that affixes to the floor of the house.  In addition to that, there are multiple steel straps, each of them several feet long, that are also embedded in the cement foundation and later attached to the walls of the house with an almost ridiculous number of fasteners.

All of this connection keeps the home safe when the wind and rain come (and boy do they come!) or should an earthquake ever surface.

My husband commented recently, that when he oversaw the construction of our past home, the framers were quick to point out that whoever had done the foundation had done exceptional work.  They were glad to see that it had been done so well, because all of the work they were about to do would depend upon it.  Straight and square walls start with a straight and square foundation, was their perspective.

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Like the foundation for our homes, the early years of a child’s development are a critical time of preparation.

The tasks of early development are often unseen or unrecognized by others.  More commonly identified as play, this work of singing, climbing, running, pretending, painting, talking, and listening, is more powerful than its simplicity implies.  Each activity is laying the foundation for future learning.

Children singing songs and listening to stories are building critical pre-reading skills — skills that are not just nice, but necessary for them to become readers.  Little fingers lining up cars on a mat are building the fine motor skills that will allow them later to hold pencils and master keystrokes.  At the same time, this play-work is also helping them build concepts of numeracy, such as a one-to-one ratio as they move cars one by one, or the ability to sort by attributes as red cars and blue cars find separate parking lots, or the ability to compare quantities as they realize their friends have more or less cars piled up than do they.   All of these skills need practice and hands-on construction before we introduce the later math concepts that often play out on grade-school worksheets.

In addition to all of that, this foundation of play and exploration prepares children with the gifts of wonder and social problem-solving.  These are gifts that are built through experience, not by lecture.  And it is these gifts that open the door to all later learning.

Those unable to see the foundation of early learning for what it is are often eager to plop something down that’s more rewarding.  Just as I may have ben happy to skip right to the home I could see, they want to go directly to the seen skills like reading rather than pre-literacy skills and mathematical computations instead of early numeracy.  From their perspective, those performance skills are what really “count”, after all.

But just as our framers needed the assurance of a well-prepared foundation, our young children need a solid, deep foundation of hands-on exploration and play to prepare them for later skills.  Watching a child take words from a page and turn them into a spoken story is magical to watch — like seeing a house come up where there was once nothing — but before you can put the work and effort into decoding, you have to build the foundation with things like language, phonemic awareness, and concepts of print.

As literacy experts, Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, stated in their book, Literacy Beginnings: A Prekindergarten Handbook:

“The knowledge that forms the foundation for reading and writing is built throughout early childhood through play, language, and literary experiences.”

Learning foundations are built through play and experience.  And we can’t afford to skip that.  A push-down curriculum isn’t helping kids to get ahead, it’s simply ignoring the critical role of the foundation.

The metal straps and bolts of the foundation secure our home and keep it firm in the face of storms and tremors, and a strong foundation does the same for our young learners.  A lack of foundational skills weakens our learners as they move on to more and more challenging work.  Often, those who struggle in later grades with reading, do so because they lack foundational skills that begin early on like phonemic awareness or story comprehension.  Math woes begin when we fail to start with a foundation of number sense and numeracy through hands-on activities.  

Those straps and bolts are also a reminder that a house isn’t built in independent levels.  There’s an interconnection.  The house isn’t just set down onto the foundation, it grows out of it.  Likewise, strong foundational learning gives root to later learning as basic concepts create connections necessary for inquiry and growth.

When children are allowed the time and space to build strong foundations, the skills built later on come more easily and solidly.  We owe children the opportunity to build strong foundations in ways that are developmentally appropriate.  Let’s reject the notion that we have to leave childhood behind in order to get ahead. 

Let’s be builders.

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Amanda Morgan, MS, has nearly 20 years of experience teaching children, parents, and teachers in a variety of environments. She is a speaker and educator with degrees focused on early childhood education and child development, and currently writes at the blog, Not Just Cute
  • Jon Harper /  @Jonharper70bd
    Jon Harper / @Jonharper70bd Sunday, 14 February 2016

    This was excellent! The segue from your personal life to the educational world that we owe students was very well done. I too worry that we are rushing and that if we don't allow our children the chance to be children, we are going to pay the price later on. I already see it in older children who don't even know how to play at recess time. Thank you for sharing this and I look forward to reading more of your writing.

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