Function = participation = engagement = learning
Yes, children should learn about the world, learn to move, learn to speak, learn to manipulate objects, learn to solve problems, learn to get along with others, and learn to take care of themselves. The curriculum of early childhood is clear. It shows up in state early-childhood standards, in tests, in curricula, and in parents' expectations. The question is What's the best way for children to learn this material? Or perhaps the philosophical question is whether this curriculum is what we aim for, or is it the natural outgrowth of normal development? Maybe we just made it the curriculum, because it's what we saw happening in early childhood. The outcome.
This question has bigger implications than you might think. If it's what children "should" learn, then adults will move heaven and earth to teach children these skills. It also becomes the framework for assessment and individualized program planning, usually based on the child's deficits. If a child is behind in one or more of these areas, those become targets for intervention. This can lead to making the child do what he or she is no good at.
If the areas of learning I outlined above are the outcome rather than curriculum, then we know children learn the content at different paces and in different ways and sometimes not at all. We call that developmental disability. Interesting.
Now let's turn our attention to how children learn best. If we take a curricular approach to functioning, as I mentioned above, we might be tempted to take an academic approach; I use that term to refer to the "academy"--the school, with lessons and a fair amount of adult direction. If we take an outcome approach, we let learning happen, supposedly naturally, which sounds almost as frightening. The classic constructivist philosophy endorses this approach. If the child is a curious, active, intelligent being with a good environment, naturally occurring learning will be fine. But if the child has inherent difficulties in learning or a poor environment, we need to pay attention.
So what do we change? We can't cure the biophysical condition, including what's going on in the brain--at least not efficiently. Brain science does claim we can restructure brains, but--and here's the kicker: We do it by changing the environment. The environment is comprised of social, nonsocial, and temporal conditions around the child. Included in the social environment are the interactions the child has with adults or even other children--interactions that can enhance or impede learning. The nonsocial environment includes safe or unsafe spaces, things to play with (they don't have to be toys), places to move around in or on, and so on. The temporal environment has to do with the sequence of routines, which in some families is predictable and in others is not.
The quality of the child's environment for enhancing learning is what Bruder and Dunst have discussed in their work on learning opportunities.
Mental Shift 7 is about understanding that learning does happen in everyday routines. If a child is functioning in a routine, it means he or she is participating meaningfully, whether cuddling with the mother at wake-up time, eating independently at breakfast time, helping to get dressed at dressing time, putting on shoes at going-out time, pointing at trucks in the car ride, playing independently during dinner preparation, using words or signs at dinner time, playing with a parent during hanging-out time, putting a washcloth to the face at bath time, or turning pages in a book at bedtime. And I listed only one of a score of skills a child could display in each routine--and there are more routines than these. A child's day is full of learning opportunities--of opportunities to participate meaningfully. When a child is so participating, we say the child is engaged. And if the child is engaged, the child can learn. As Dunst, Trivette, and I wrote (on papyrus, I think) back in 1985, a child cannot learn if a child is not engaged.
We do want children to learn and we do want them to function in their environments. Fortunately, these two things go together, joined by participation and engagement.