Men In Early Childhood Education: My Interview With ECE Professional Peter Pizzlongo by Mike Prochaska

Men In Early Childhood Education: My Interview With ECE Professional Peter Pizzlongo

Peter Pizzlongo recently retired, moved to Rehoboth Beach, Del., and conducts keynotes and workshops for early childhood educators serving children from birth through age 8 and their families. He began his career as a teacher of toddlers and preschoolers, and has worked with Zero To Three, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and Head Start.

Q. What are the advantages of being a man in Early Childhood Education? What do men bring to classroom?

“I've been a man in the field of ECE since the 1970s. Some of what happens today mirrors my experiences in the 70s (good and not so good), but there have been a number of changes for the positive. When I began as a teacher, it was a rarity to have a man in that position, especially with toddlers. For children who did not have men in their daily lives, I trust that I filled the gap. Primarily, though, I felt that it was important for children to see that men and women can be capable of holding the same positions in the work world, that men and women can be nurturing, that men and women can be authoritative, that men and women could be in charge, etc. I began teaching at the height of the women's liberation movement, so the timing was perfect. I can't really put my finger on things that men bring to the classroom that women do not, other than the wider perspective regarding what men and women are capable of doing, of being.”

Q. Why is play important for children? 

“The word that I used so often in my work with children and adults, which became a loaded word more recently. Of course, children learn many things through play: object play, manipulative play, cooperative play, pretend play, big body play, playing games with rules. When children play, they can explore, experiment, question, problem solve, probe, construct knowledge, learn by doing.

“At times their play is spontaneous; at times they (preschoolers and older) have planned ahead what they're going to do, identify roles and stick to their roles – seen primarily in socio-dramatic play, which we now know leads to the development/strengthening of executive function. I would also like to note that playful learning is important, not necessarily the free-style play that we more often think about, but it's more about engaging in a learning activity in a playful way.

"Early childhood educators are such pros at this, exemplified, for example, in the work of Juanita Copley who has developed such wonderful math games for children. And it's also important to remember that there are times when direct instruction (that's small ‘d,’ small ‘i’) is important. Think about learning to use scissors or a paring knife for a cooking activity – safety dictates a certain way to use these tools.

"Think also about the letters and numerals – they don't 'land on a child's head' when he's playing in the block corner. Children learn these 'facts,' typically in a playful learning way (NOT rote memorization!), and have them at the ready when they're developmentally ready for conceptual learning (e.g., the numeral 3 represents three objects; 3 follows 2 and is before 4 when counting, etc.).

“I like the categorization of children's experiences that Ann Epstein coined in 'The Intentional Teacher': adult-guided and child-guided experiences. Makes more sense than the more typically stated 'adult directed' and 'child initiated.' With adult-guided experiences, there's a role for children. And, with child-guided, there's a role for adults, which might be setting up the materials and making time/space for the play to happen, through the adult offering scaffolding to enhance the play. I could say much more. Check out 'The Intentional Teacher' if you don't know it.

“The other piece of my psalm: It's not either/or, it's both/and (part of developmentally appropriate practice guidelines). There's room and a reason for child-guided and adult-guided play; for learning with found objects (e.g., collections of shells, plastic bottle caps) and for using tools that have a specific purpose (markers, pencils, microscopes, cameras, PCs, tablets, smartphones, crayons)."

Q. What’s your favorite memory working with kids?

“When I was teaching toddlers, my group of 10 were from 15 months to 2-plus years. One day in the outdoors area, in the fall, a 15-month-old girl picked up a leaf. I walked over to her, ready to scaffold (well, we didn't really have the word yet). I crouched down and noticed how intently she was looking at the leaf – carefully turning it in her hand, as if she know how fragile a fallen leaf is. I stopped myself from speaking (not easy, for those who know me). I watched as she continued her examination of the leaf. When she was satisfied with what she now knew about it, she dropped the leaf and went on to something else. It seemed as if she was attending to this leaf observation for a long time, but in actuality it was probably less than a minute, which IS a long time for a 15-month-old! I learned that there are times to not interrupt what children are doing. Teachers have many decisions to make in the moment, and not talking is an important strategy in many instances!"

Q. What is your favorite book to read to a classroom?

“My favorite memories are the first books I read: 'Caps for Sale,' 'Blueberries for Sal,' 'Peter's Chair' and 'A Snowy Day.'"

Q. Anything inspiring to tell anyone thinking of going into this field? 

“If you think ECE is your calling – do it! If you've determined that working with children of a particular age is your calling, then do it! You'll know pretty quickly if you were right in your determination (e.g., the first time a little one bites you, or throws up on you – and you don't go screaming and running out of the room – you're good!)."

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Peter Pizzolongo
Male EC teachers who are GenXers or Millennials--how do my recollections of being a male ECEer in the 1970s compare with your experiences?

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