Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Imagine Innovate Inspire: That’s the theme of this year’s information-packed Annual Conference and Expo that NAEYC (the National Association for the Education of Young Children) will host in Washington, DC, from November 20-23, 2013.

“This is an exciting time for our field, and there is unprecedented national momentum and support for early learning,” NAEYC’s new executive director Rhian Evans Allvin, writes in the program to welcome participants. “The information you gain [at the conference] will allow you to innovate as you apply new skills and knowledge in your work.”

Thousands of early education professionals are expected to attend some 800 sessions. Session topics include:

– Children’s right to play

– The best new books for preschool

– Gender equity and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)

– Professional development for early educators

– Developing an early childhood research agenda

Conference participants include Helen Blank, director of Child Care and Early Learning at the National Women’s Law Center; Sam Meisels, the founding executive director of the University of Nebraska’s Buffet Early Childhood Institute; and our own Amy O’Leary, Early Education for All campaign director and NAEYC Governing Board member.

We’ll be blogging about the conference over the next few months, highlighting sessions and participants. Today’s focus is on the keynote address.

Using the Arts to Teach STEM

The opening keynote address will feature a discussion about the Wolf Trap Foundation’s Early Childhood STEM Learning Through the Arts initiative. Wolf Trap is a public/private partnership that unites a national park and performing arts venues.

The STEM project is funded by a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. According to its website, Wolf Trap “is partnering with Fairfax County Public Schools and American Institutes for Research to develop, implement, evaluate, and disseminate arts-integrated STEM teaching strategies that improve children’s math learning.” The goal is to design “research-based content and model programs that can be expanded and replicated throughout the Wolf Trap Institute’s national network of regional partners.”

“The arts bring math into the body,” helping children understand abstract concepts, Maria Gallagher, an Early Childhood Specialist at the Fairfax County (VA) Office for Children, explains in this video.  .

“Why use the arts to teach STEM in early childhood?” the U.S. Department of Education asks in an article on its website that features Wolf Trap’s work.

Because: “Children learn through discovery. Touching, moving, exploring, questioning — young children are active and eager to learn, using all their senses to absorb information and make sense of the world around them. They are natural artists, drawn to music and stories, delighted by every opportunity to dance or talk to a puppet friend.”

The article explains, “The Wolf Trap Early Childhood STEM Learning through the Arts program is pursuing five goals, each of which is strengthened and supported by the others.” Those goals are to:

– Develop an innovative, research-based arts integration model for early childhood learning in math

– Educate Wolf Trap Teaching Artists in early childhood math skills and concepts to ensure the development of high-quality math/arts content

– Provide professional development to teachers, enabling them to apply arts-based strategies in their classrooms

-Improve children’s math and performing arts skills in concert with curriculum standards

-Document and disseminate this model nationally

Wolf Trap’s work has attracted media attention, including coverage by PBS and the Huffington Post. An article in Virginia’s Hopewell News and Patriot says, “The preschool class at Cornerstone Tender Care looks much like any other preschool classroom. A small group of children form a circle around at teacher as they follow her lead in a simple song and dance routine.

“Take a minute to listen to the song’s words, and it becomes clear it’s not a typical preschool song at all. Its subject is the six-step engineering process.”

Building on a 30-year history of developing and sharing arts education programs, Wolf Trap’s plans are ambitious: “The high level or research involved in this program will allow us to prove the arts should be integral to STEM education for young children,” Terrence Jones, Wolf Trap’s former president and CEO, said in a 2010 press release announcing the project. “We believe our work could make a substantial difference in how teachers teach and how children learn.”

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Stay tuned for additional posts on NAEYC’s national conference over the next few months.