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What If We Taught The Way Children Learn?

Episode 216 – The COVID-19 pandemic has left a lot of educators and parents in lurch when it comes to early childhood learning and development. In this episode, we chat with Rae Pica, about her new book, What If We Taught the Way Children Learn? We talk about coming back to the basics, the factors that motivate children to learn, and why it’s important not to lose sight of having fun when working with young children.


Episode Transcript


Understanding children, looking at things from their point of view, not having what the late, great Bev Bos called “childhood amnesia”, remembering what it’s like to be a child.


Rae, welcome back to the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you, Ron. Glad to be here!


So, Rae is setting a little bit of a record for the Preschool Podcast: this is going to be her third time on the show. We’ve had a couple other folks who’ve been back a second time but this is a first for third time on the show. And it’s for good reason: she’s been up to a lot of great work.

A name lots of our listeners will know: Rae Pica. She’s a early childhood education consultant and author. In fact, she’s authored over 20 books. So, certainly someone we can learn a lot from.

Rae, let’s start off just reminding the audience a little bit about your background. And maybe you can talk bit a little bit as well about how you’ve adapted to COVID-19 with your work. I know a lot of things have changed for a lot of people and nobody is immune to that. It’d be interesting to hear what you’re doing differently, as well.


Yeah, it’s what we’re all thinking about these days. Thanks, Ron. Well, I’ve been an early childhood consultant for – yikes – 40 years. I’ve got all the white hair to prove it. And there’s considerably more of it these days than there used to be. I really thank you for making this audio and not video.

And as in my role as a consultant, I’ve done a lot of writing. I grew up wanting to write. But I also did a lot of keynotes out and about. And that is not happening right now. And it was terrifying when they started to cancel [speaking events]. But fortunately, I think only one canceled completely and then the rest went virtual. And so I even have one coming up for Utah AEYC [Association for the Education of Young children] on Saturday morning.

So, I’ve adapted to talking to the computer as though I’m talking to a person or to an audience. And it’s kind of fascinating. There’s always the glitches with technology but people are very, very forgiving of it. And they realize that we’re all human and technology drives us all crazy.

So, yeah, I’ve been doing virtual keynotes, webinars. I had created some online courses before and I’m going to be relaunching one on challenging behaviors this month, August. So, there’s still a lot going on. And I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity to be able to do my work virtually because I wasn’t sure what the heck I was going to do. The cat, he doesn’t make a lot of money. And so I was not really sure how I was going to eat and pay the rent.


Yeah, you couldn’t count on the cat to be the main breadwinner in your household, eh?


Oh, no. He makes a great paperweight, though.


And out of curiosity – and this is something that I think is so important in early-childhood education – the balancing of the practical aspects of early-childhood education and working with children directly in science and research. You’ve authored a lot of books; you’ve done a lot of keynotes. How do you sort of take those two sides in and take that information to inform your work in? And again, something that I think is so important and something we’d like to talk about on the Preschool Podcast, of finding that balance.


So, I want to be sure I understand your question correctly. You’re talking about how I take the research and apply it to my work?


It’s more around… so, if you’re writing a book, how much of the content in that book is coming from scientific research that’s more sort of on the academia side, versus information that’s coming from practical studies or in the classroom, let’s call it, situations?


Sure. Well, there’s definitely a blend of both. And this latest one that just came out and I haven’t yet seen because I think everything – post office, Amazon – they’re all moving very slowly these days. But it’s called, What If We Taught the Way Children Learn? [More Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children’s Lives], which I always say is one of those “duh” questions. I mean, what if we taught the way children learn? Doesn’t that make sense?

So, it is a collection of essays and sort of I call them “Rae’s Rants”. But there’s definitely the brain research. I mean, the thing is, we’ve seen those old photos, the black-and-white photos of children sitting in rows at their desks with the teacher as the sage on the stage. And that’s how teaching and learning – well, teaching – used to be. That’s what school looked like.

But they didn’t have the brain research then that we have now. They didn’t know the correct way to teach children. They didn’t know how children learn. So, there’s a lot of that in my books. But also there are a lot of anecdotes and the stories that come to me, many of which make me want to pull my hair right out because I hear about so much developmentally inappropriate practice.

And I hear from teachers and I hear from parents. And everybody is freaking out. There are so many expectations, unrealistic expectations for children these days. So, that’s sort of the inspiration behind these rants and the chapters in this book.

So, to answer your question, there is definitely a blend of both. What I’ve seen, what I hear – it’s usually what I hear a lot of, like, “Today’s children have no fine motor skills; today’s children are falling out of their seats in school.” And then what the brain research tells us.


And it’s an interesting point you make about the title of the book. What if we taught the way children learn? Obviously we should do that. So, I guess let me rephrase the question to why don’t we teach the way children?


Well, that is the million dollar question. Why don’t we? I don’t know. My blood pressure just goes up and I can’t think straight. The policies coming down from on high, they’re coming from people who don’t understand child development. And that was the precursor to this book. What If Everybody Understood Child Development? [Straight Talk About Bettering Education] was another one of my books.

They don’t understand child development; they haven’t worked with children; sometimes it seems as though they really don’t care; they don’t like children. I mean, some of the policies that are coming down…And they are demanding that teachers do things that are developmentally inappropriate, like keeping them seated, using worksheets and all that sort of thing.

And then there are the parents. God love them, they want the best for their children. But they’re receiving a lot of misinformation one about what that is, what “the best” is. The big myth is that earlier [learning] is better. And so we’re pushing children to to read and write before they’re developmentally ready, to sit still before they’re developmentally ready.

They don’t understand how important play is; they don’t understand that it doesn’t have to be so hard. And in fact, I just wrote a blog post and just published it this week on the whole learning loss thing. I don’t know if you’re hearing it up there in Canada as often as we’re hearing it here, but everyone is going crazy because of the pandemic and the children not being in school.

And I read an article last week about that, quote unquote, “devastating” learning loss occurring for preschoolers during this time. And honest to goodness, I just want to scream. How could it be devastating when they were never part of the schooling scene until recently in history?

They’re actually happier now, from everything that I’m hearing, because they’re not under pressure to please adults by doing things that they’re not ready to do. They’re not sitting still all the time unless they happen to be one of those children who is forced to sit in front of a computer for five hours a day. And I did hear a story about that.

So, yes, I mean, if they’re just playing, if they’re just exploring their interests and discovering their passions then going to be just fine. So, there I am, ranting again. Sorry, I get carried away.


No, I was always curious about those headlines, too, because we have our kids at home. And if anything, it’s hard to tell because this is my first time going through this. But my sense is, they’ve been developing very quickly. And I don’t know if that’s true or not, like I said, but I don’t know. If maybe they’re spending more time with us and that helps, I don’t know.


It does, it does. One of the things they crave is connection with their parents. I mean, if the parents are reading to the children and just letting the children do their thing, encouraging them to do their thing… I use the example of Steven Spielberg’s mom, how she always encouraged him to just mess around with the family video camera. And look at where it got him!


Yeah, totally. Now, can we get a little bit of preview into your latest book, What If We Taught The Way Children Learn? What are some of the essays in there? And what inspired some of those?


Sure, thanks. I talk about the reasons we’re seeing more challenging behavior these days – I hear that from a lot of early-childhood professionals. The new teachers are stunned because this is not what they expected. And the experienced teachers have never seen behavior like they’re seeing now.

And I firmly believe that a lot of it has to do with all of the things we’re doing to children: taking away their play; giving them no downtime; expecting things of them that they can’t possibly do and the pressure that puts them under; all those sorts of things. And I actually have an online course on avoiding challenging behavior in the early-childhood setting. I’m going to relaunch that this month, in August.

But yeah, I mean, if we taught the way children learn, then we would see a lot less challenging behavior because they would be happy. I talk about how just using our knowledge of children can make things easier for us. “Trouble-free transitions” is one of the chapters.

And when I do my live presentation on this topic, I ask the professionals in the audience, “What are a couple of things that young children aren’t yet developmentally ready to do, not academically speaking?” And they say things like, “Being still, being quiet, waiting.” And those are the exact things we ask of them with transitions. So why? Why? Why are we doing that when we know that they’re not developmentally ready to do it? What if we made transitions fun and developmentally appropriate?

I rant on about screen use in the classroom, which I am not a fan of. And the connection, again, between mind and body, I touched on that in What If Everybody Understood Child Development? We tend to behave as though we think children exist only from the neck up. And that belief has us eliminating recess and keeping children sitting for longer periods, for another one of my least favorite phrases – “learning loss” has become a new one but “instructional time” has been one that’s been a pet peeve for a long time.

We talk about when I hear things like “no fine motor skills anymore”, and I’m sure all of your listeners have experienced that to some degree. Teachers tell me that the children can swipe, of course, but they don’t have the strength, the hand and finger strength to tear a piece of paper. I mean, that’s appalling.

And then when I came across an article about children falling out of their chairs in school, I thought I was having a nightmare. I mean, it couldn’t be real. But one first grade teacher counted in one week, it happened 44 times.

And in my live presentations I would ask people if this was happening and lots of them raised their hands. So, it’s not an unusual occurrence. Why are they falling out of their seats? And why do they have no fine motor skills? Because we’ve eliminated movement from their lives.

I mean, most people don’t realize that gross motor skills need to be developed first before the fine motor skills because motor development occurs from the top of the body to the bottom of the body, from the inside – the trunk – to the outside – the extremities – and from the large muscles to the small.

So, a lot of people say the best way to get children’s fine motor skills improved is to let them swing from the monkey bars and climb trees, neither of which we let them do anymore. And then the falling out of their seats… well, nature planned it so that children should run, change direction and jump, spin, twirl, swing.

All of those things develop the proprioceptive and vestibular systems in the body. Proprioceptive is knowing where you, your body and your body parts are in space, the space around you. So, for example, you can walk up the stairs without watching your feet as you do it; or you can bring the spoon to your mouth without watching it happen. And the vestibular system, of course, is related to balance.

So, if you don’t have a developed vestibular and proprioceptive sense, you’re going to fall out of your seat. And I just think that’s appalling, Ron. I mean, what are we doing? We’re making decisions for children that are really detrimental to them.


Yeah, it’s crazy to think. You know, one of the things that I think about in this conversation, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it because it sounds like we’re erring too far in one direction, but there’s sort of like this concept of letting children explore and play. Everyone in early-childhood education understands just how important that is and I think an area where we struggle.

But then on the other side I think there’s some science and research that says children being able to control some of their natural inhibitions or instincts is a positive thing. So, it’s kind of like, how do you do like the exploration and play while also honing that other ability in children to not just quote-unquote “let them do what they want”? And this is coming from a spot where I will apologize for my lack of knowledge, which is why I ask you. But how do you find that balance? And what’s that conversation?


I’m really glad you asked that because that’s probably the first thing that comes to mind when adults think about children moving and playing and being active in the classroom. For example, they imagine children bouncing off the walls or just taking control of the classroom. But really I feel the opposite is true.

I mean, certainly there have to be rules. If we’re doing movement activities then one rule is we have to respect one another’s personal space. And I just released an e-book about that, it’s a free e-book. Because, of course, personal space… I’m hoping that children don’t go back to school. But if they do, they will have to maintain a certain level of personal space. So, that’s one rule. And then rules about sound versus noise, which are two different things.

So, there are definitely protocols that have to be followed – practiced, perhaps, then followed. If we talk about self-regulation, for example – and I think that that’s a part of what you were asking about – they need to learn to regulate their emotions and their bodies.

And we think that if we tell them, Sit still, sit still, sit still,” and they obey us, that they have learned to regulate themselves. But that goes against – and this is part of the book, too – that goes against the definition of self-regulation, which is that there be no outside influence, that they learn it within themselves.

So, my feeling is, what motivates children? Fun – it has to feel good for intrinsic motivation to take place in them. So, we make it fun. You play a game of Statues or Freeze, right? And they’re moving whatever way they want while the music is playing. And of course, they’re maintaining their personal space because we’ve made that fun, too. And they have to freeze into a statue when the music stops. Well, that’s self-regulation. They want to hold still at that point and wait for the music.

So, things like that, understanding children, looking at things from their point of view, not having what the late, great Bev Bos called “childhood amnesia”, remembering what it’s like to be a child.


Yeah, that was what really, really resonated with me, was the point sort of about the difference between an adult telling the child to do something and they’re just doing it because they’re being told, versus they’re deciding to do it themselves.


It’s an important distinction.


Very, very, yeah. And that, I think, comes to the essence of my question about the self-regulation, versus the exploration and play. Very cool. As always, we always run out of time in these conversations much quicker than we’d like…


Yeah, it goes so fast!


I know, right? Any parting thoughts for our listeners? It’s a challenging time for a lot of people out there right now. So, any words of wisdom from you and your experience?


Oh, gee, no pressure. I think we just have to care for one another and care for the children. It’s just never been more important to look at things from somebody else’s point of view. I have been really surprised and just in awe of the number of people attending my webinars and the virtual stuff because in some cases they don’t even know if they’re going to be working with the children live or virtually. And yet they are still so hungry for professional development. And I would just like to applaud them for their dedication. They impress me.


Yeah, totally. It’s great to see people adapting and they’re hungry to learn and do what they have to do to support children, regardless, like you said, of whether it’s in the childcare program or not. It’s great to see that happening.

So, Rae, you have this new book, it just came out. Where can folks find it?


Well, they can find anything about me and my work at Corwin Press [] just told me yesterday that they are offering 30% off books through August. So, that might be something instead of going through my link, which takes you to Amazon. If you want to save a little bit of money it might behoove them to go there.

And then I want to point out that at my site, if they would like access to a free e-library, which includes now, as of yesterday, 14 downloadable e-books, that they just have to plug in their name and e-mail address – I think it’s right there on the home page – and they’ll get access to that. So, I’m happy to offer that to them.


Oh, wonderful! We definitely encourage folks to check that out at And it sounds like a good opportunity to get a discount if you go direct to Corwin on What If We Taught How Children Learn? Rae, always a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much for joining us!


And thank you for letting me come on, three times, I love that!


It’s our pleasure. And I’m sure our listeners will definitely appreciate your words anytime. Thanks so much, Rae!


Thank you, Ron. Take good care!

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!

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