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It’s Never Too Early to Start: Exploring CTE at the Elementary Level Through Play

It’s Never Too Early to Start: Exploring CTE at the Elementary Level Through Play

This is not another blog about the value of CTE. Career and Technical Education (CTE) is a critical topic and I don’t mean to minimize that; it is just that I believe we have discussed this subject front, back, up, and down. CTE is meaningful—it provides opportunities for students to explore options and interests that typically don’t make it into the classroom, and it helps educators reach more students. However, and interesting question recently came up with our cohort of June 2019 Educator Summit attendees: when is the appropriate time to introduce career and technical education to our students?

Is it ever too early? The answer from our Educator Summit cohort was a resounding “It’s never too early”. But, there are stipulations.

Let’s start by going back to the basics, with this definition from AdvanceCTE:

Career Technical Education (CTE) provides students of all ages with the academic and technical skills, knowledge and training necessary to succeed in future careers and to become lifelong learners…CTE prepares these learners for the world of work by introducing them to workplace competencies, and makes academic content accessible to students by providing it in a hands-on context.

Essentially, CTE is all about teaching specific career skills, typically to students in middle school, high school, and at post-secondary institutions. It has become an important pillar of the American education system in recent years, with high-profile federal funding available through the Perkins grant program, and the widespread adoption of AdvanceCTE’s National Career Clusters framework that organizes programming into 16 different industries and 79 career paths. The kind of practical, applicable, real-world learning CTE provides can be hugely beneficial to learners who know what their interests and goals are—but what about our young students who haven’t built that awareness yet? That’s the big caveat our cohort group continued to come back to during our conversation about when to introduce CTE to students. 

In the lower elementary world, exposing students to the huge variety of ideas and options outside of the world they already know is where we as educators can begin. How do we expose kids younger students to the massive amount of careers obtainable? The key is focusing on broad exploration—not tracking kids down specific paths.

But, what does this kind of early CTE exploration look like in a kindergarten classroom? Actually, it’s a lot more play than work! Here are four strategies to try:

Set Up Learning Centers

Learning centers are areas within the classroom where students learn about specific subjects by playing and engaging in self-directed (but thoughtfully designed) activities. Play is an active form of learning that involves the whole self. Even cognitive development, the primary focus in today’s kindergarten, is achieved through child-initiated exploration and discovery. This can happen with rotation through a scheduled center time daily or weekly, or more organically as an option during free time. Play can be explored independently as an individual authentic activity or through group projects and activities.

Invite Visitors

Five- and six-year-olds are natural, enthusiastic learners. Their impulse to ask questions, investigate, explore, examine, and experiment it comes from a burning, innate curiosity about the world and a desire to understand things. They learn, grow, and internalize through interactive experiences with each other and with adults. Why not use this natural curiosity to leverage community support? Exposing students to a variety of adults working in variety of industries and with a variety of experiences to share allows for students’ to follow their curiosity.

Encourage Dramatic Play

Young students need to play, and this is work for them. While kids are at play, they are completely, one hundred percent in the moment. Shared dramatic play can last five minutes or be reprised day after day. It can involve costumes, dolls, steering wheels, or nothing at all. It can be loud and boisterous or just a whisper. It can be first-person (“I’m the doctor…”) or with one step removed as kids play and build with blocks or action figures. What dramatic play requires is lots of language and expressive motions; the students involved need to communicate viscerally with each other. Through dramatic play, a student develops a deeper understanding of the world around them.

Plan Field Trips

Structured field study experiences (AKA CTE field trips) allow students to gain first-hand knowledge about the world around them while building relationships with different adults. With elementary school students, these experiences feed the imagination. After all, what young student doesn’t want to be a fireman after visiting the fire station and seeing the fire pole? Or become a vet after meeting some playful animals? Or become a biologist after spending a day exploring a local nature preserve? Focus on giving your students the opportunity to see the cool things about all kinds of different life paths.

Career and technical education might look a bit different for elementary students than it does for middle and high school students ready for more specific, structured learning. It really never is too early to start exposing students to all the possibilities the working world has to offer, and providing that fodder for the development of the student’s imagination.

Looking for a refresher on the impacts of high-quality career and technical education? Check out the blog on Career and Technical Education by the Numbers!

winnie.oleary's picture

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently a Curriculum Manager for Edmentum. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she finds something new and exciting every day. 

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