Zen and the Art of Early Childhood Education


“Early Childhood” is more than just a developmental stage or part of a job title. It is a leap of faith: that we are making a difference in the lives of young children when many of the results of our hard work may not become apparent until long after we may be forgotten.

“Early Childhood,” for me, is also a way of living life. When I am around little human beings, new to the planet, I am committed to ensuring that they experience, in me, the best life has to offer: joy, playfulness, respect, gratitude, hope, creativity, persistence, resilience, curiosity and so much more. Therefore, some of the most important work I do to be a successful professional lies in my growth as a person. I created “Zen and the Art of Early Childhood Education,” my social media page on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, in part, as a way to help early childhood professionals notice the relationship between long-held human wisdom and ECE best practices…

On “Reflection”

Know thyself.
– Socrates

I would be concerned for a future in which our children are cared for by robots. In order to learn what it means to be human, young children need professionals who bring their humanity to work, flaws and all, every single day. Therefore, we must become reflective practitioners who ask ourselves, “How does who I am personally color who I am professionally?” We must consider the ways we were raised and educated, notice our preferences and biases, and embrace our unique strengths and challenges. If we are not awake and aware of how we are being around young children, in their most formative years, we lessen the possibilities they will have to choose from as they move through their lives.

If you want to know the past, to know what has caused you,
look at yourself in the PRESENT, for that is the past’s effect.
  If you want to know your future, then look at yourself
  in the PRESENT, for that is the cause of the future.
– Majjhima Nikaya

On “Intentionality”

Intention leads to manifestation.
We create our lives, with every thought,
every minute of every day.
– Rhonda Byrne

The result of reflection is intentionality. What separates the early childhood professional, deserving of higher wages, from the babysitter, is our unique skill sets and our knowledge of both child development theories and early education best practices. Out of that, we purposefully set high expectations for both children and ourselves. We make intentional choices about planning and implementing engaging, developmentally appropriate curricular content, our guidance and facilitation techniques, scaffolding each child’s learning, our supportive parent partnerships, our deliberately-designed learning environments and on and on.

Every journey begins with the first step of articulating
the intention, and then becoming the intention.
– Bryant McGill

On “Foolishness”

It’s okay to be absurd, ridiculous and downright irrational at times;
silliness is the sweet syrup that helps us swallow the bitter pills of life.
– Richelle E. Goodrich

While the outcomes of early education can frequently be very serious business, we must never forget that there is always room for fun. I am committed to modeling for young children that being alive means playing, being silly and laughing together, at the absurdities of life. Most young children are eager and ready for fun and the best early childhood professionals I know, understand how to follow the lead of children’s playful spirits, finding ways to weave in our educational agendas along the way.

In our time together, we will undoubtedly find a dead bird on the playground or find ourselves talking about some tragic current event they caught a glimpse of on TV. We can navigate these moments with less traumatic effects if we have already established a safe, joyous and fun-loving community.

The fool thinks himself to be wise,
but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
 – William Shakespeare

On “Being Present”

Be here now.
– Ram Dass

We each live within our own Sphere of Experience; an ever-growing “bubble” that represents our expanding experience of time and space. Having been around for only a short period of time, young children’s Spheres are smaller so they tend to live more “in the present moment” and “right here” than us grown-ups. Therefore, young children are often more interested in and excited by the moment-to-moment process of an activity than by the product that will result in the future.

Once we understand this, it not only changes the types of activities we provide but the ways we facilitate them. Our grownup minds are often wired to look for results and outcomes but we must remain mindful that young children experience the world differently than we do. We must challenge ourselves to remain present with them, not fretting about the past, worrying about the future or concerned with events occurring elsewhere. We must primarily provide open-ended, process-oriented activities and facilitate them with a focus on what is unfolding rather than on where we are headed.

Life is a journey, not a destination.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

On “Meaningfulness”

Once the emotions have been aroused, then we wish for knowledge about
the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.
– Rachel Carson

Many of us may think that our job is “to teach children their colors, letters, numbers and shapes”. However, if we instead view the purpose of our jobs as “to help children make sense of the world in which they found themselves,” we can meet those academic goals and so very much more.

Neurological research tells us that human beings learn best when our emotions are involved at a slightly heightened level. Our emotions are activated when we are invested in or care about what we are doing; when it is meaningful to us.

Activities which tend to produce less emotional investment for young children include memorizing facts through the use of flash cards, writing in workbooks or on worksheets, repetitive writing of letters and coloring in coloring pages.

These activities are not “bad” for kids. But, if we are spending a great deal of young children’s time on passive pursuits like these, we are not maximizing their learning potential.

Human beings’ emotions tend to be heightened when we actively sing, dance, make music, pretend, explore, discover, experiment, invent, build and when we express ourselves creatively about the subjects that are important or meaningful in our hearts and minds.

Be brave. Take risks.
Nothing can substitute experience.

– Paul Coelho

On “Love”

You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying,
to run by running, to work by working;
and just so, you learn to love by loving.
– Saint Francis De Sales

Being an effective early childhood professional means, in great part, that we love other people for a living. Therefore, we must think carefully about how we each define both “love” and “professionalism”. Because, once Love enters an equation, logic and clear-minded thinking often go out the window.

We must ensure that we are caring for every child and family equitably, even if we gravitate to certain ones more than others or, if, for reasons we just can’t seem to put a finger on, we find ourselves irritated by some. We must be sure that we are not taking personally children’s innocent rudeness or a family’s concerns about our program. Our ability to give and receive love is our greatest professional skill set and our most precious gift. Offering our hearts, while also setting high professional standards for ourselves, is a tall order and one that bears constant vigilance, no matter how long we have been in the field.

Love is the supreme form of communication.
In the hierarchy of needs, love stands as the supreme developing
agent of the humanity of the person. As such, the teaching of love
should be the central core of all early childhood curriculum
with all other subjects growing naturally out of such teaching.
– Ashley Montagu

On “Respect”

The Golden Rule:
Do unto others
as you would have
others do unto you.

Many of us were raised with The Golden Rule, which was meant to remind us how to treat others with respect. However, in the 21st century, we now know that people are far more diverse than we ever dreamed. If I treat you the way I’d like to be treated, it is quite possible that I may end up disrespecting you. Why? Because you, your family or your culture may define respectful behavior far differently than I do.

Therefore, I invented…

Do unto others
as others would have
you do unto them.

Living by The Platinum Rule sets the stage for one of the most effective early education curricular philosophies: Relationship-based Learning. We must get to know every child and family in our care individually in order to effectively scaffold their learning and give them each what they need. This means that we then must define “fairness” differently. “Fair” doesn’t mean giving everyone the same thing. It means giving each person what they need in order to thrive. It also means that we must be very careful not to judge a family’s structure (for example, if the family has two moms), a parent’s child-rearing choices or their religious or political values.

In conclusion

Being a great early childhood professional is a position of service, often requesting that we put our personal needs and desires second to those of the children and families. It is a deeply complex occupation and a sacred responsibility that asks us to stretch ourselves as human beings in order to develop as professionals. When we are mindful of our choices, we can be both a gift to our present community and a foundation that shapes the future of those in our care.

Richard Cohen, M.A. has proudly been an early childhood professional for thirty years. For the last twenty years, Richard has traveled the world as an inspirational instructor and conference keynote motivational speaker, facilitating fun, innovative, thought-provoking, interactive adult learning experiences for communities of early childhood teachers, administrators, caregivers and parents.  Currently Richard is a full-time professor of Early Care and Learning at St. Louis Community College in Ferguson, Missouri.

 Visit Richard’s website                    Email Richard

© Copyright 2015 richardcohen.com

18 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Early Childhood Education

  1. Dear Richard. This is beyond wonderful. I am so at peace reading this post. Last night you shared that our beloved Bev Bos passed away. Reading your blog gave me a sense of calm and I so appreciate your insight and authenticity. I have worked with young children for over 40 years and there are days where I feel sadness over the direction we are headed and then..I find you!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for writing these wonderful posts. Your messages are very inspiring especially on love. “I go to work everyday to love and care for other people, that what I do for a living”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Richard
    I am sure you do not remember me but you have left a lasting impression on my path in early childhood education . It was more than ten years ago sitting in a new organization where your candle light led an inspirational journey for many of us young educators. I want to sincerely express gratitude to you for sharing the light and the undeniable truth that all beings need love.
    Thank you !


  4. Thank you for your insight and deep understanding of as you call our sacred profession.
    I attended a professional development training recently on Ethics …
    The facilitator asked “is it okay to love the children in your service “
    I instantly raised my hand and said Yes !
    Then I realised that I was the only one in the room that felt comfortable admitting I do love the children.
    I have worked in this sacred profession for over 20 years and each year I feel the same love .
    I’m grateful for each child and family that comes to our preschool .


  5. Thankyou so much Richard…I heard you on fb and then read this article.
    It seemed like me talking to myself.
    Not everyone can put so much clearly in words.
    These essential points are never covered in any professional course and thus Early Childhood Educators tend to miss out on these sensitive behaviors.
    Loved every bit of learning from you.
    Looking forward to join upcoming Zen group meetings.


  6. Aroha nui from a dedicated New Zealand ECE Professional with glitter in places glitter has no business being. Thanks for reminding me why I do what I do in such a beautiful way.


  7. Dear Richard,
    Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful write up. It is inspiring and very educative.
    I am truly thrilled at the deep illustrations you put into your writing.
    Looking forward to reading more life building Information

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Richard, this resonates with me and I feel our Australian Early Years Learning Framework is a lens to view relationship based, high quality play based intentionality.


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