Passionately Curious: Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler on analyzing how preschoolers think and learn

Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Research on Global Engagement, was one of eight Elon faculty members featured this year in "Passionately Curious," the annual Elon University President's Report. 

Each year, Elon University points a spotlight on its truly exceptional faculty and their dedication to excellent teaching, scholarly accomplishment and transformative mentoring in the President’s Report. In this year’s report, “Elon University Faculty: Passionately Curious,” featured educators were asked to write about their intellectual passion and how they share that passion with their students inside and outside the classroom.

​Four-year-old Jay is digging for potatoes in his preschool’s garden, using a trowel to push through the nearly frozen earth. As he digs, he comments, “I guess bugs don’t like the cold.” His teacher Sarah responds, “Oh, you’re noticing that you’re not seeing as many bugs as usual because it’s cold today?” “Yeah,” he replies. “But I know who does like the cold – polar bears!”

This interaction illustrates a young child’s use of inquiry processes during an engaging activity with his teacher and peers. Jay’s observation is informed by his previous experiences working in the garden throughout the year, which he compares to the present situation. He notices that this time there are no bugs in the dirt, predicts this is due to the cold weather, concludes that bugs don’t like the cold and compares them to polar bears. These are advanced reasoning processes not commonly associated with preschoolers’ thinking. However, my research shows that children are quite capable of complex thinking when supported by adults and peers in challenging and engaging social interactions in real-world situations.

I love listening to young children’s language and watching them interact with others. These became scientific methods that anchor the research framework I have used for the past 20 years as I work with undergraduate researchers to study preschoolers’ thinking and learning. I have always been curious about how young children learn so much so quickly. Think about what they can do in just a few short years. They learn to communicate using languages and gestures, gain coordination of their bodies by navigating complex environments, and develop foundational literacy, numeracy and scientific reasoning skills as they interact with others in culturally relevant activities such as cooking, reading and playing.

The support of adults and peers as facilitators and co-collaborators of inquiry is critical for young children’s learning and development. When adults follow children’s interests and afford them opportunities for both independent and guided exploration and play, children are empowered with building blocks for lifelong learning and discovery. My most recent projects also consider the importance of spending significant time outdoors in the natural world, a practice that is rapidly declining in the United States. There are numerous benefits for young children of engaging in play and exploration in natural environments, and this is a key feature of early childhood educational programming in some cultures.

My curiosity about individual learning in authentic activities with supportive peers and teachers naturally extends to my work as a faculty member at Elon. My teaching, mentoring and scholarly activities are deeply entwined with my passion for studying learning. As a mentor, I have worked with more than 100 students who conducted undergraduate research projects and facilitated their presentations at national conferences and publications in scholarly journals. Many have gone to graduate school and some work in related fields such as early childhood education. As a scholar, I study high-impact practices such as undergraduate research, in which learning is deepened and sustained through close relationships with faculty mentors, and examine the outcomes of this engaged learning for students and faculty.

My teaching in and about diverse social and cultural environments such as Hawaii, England, Italy and Denmark led to my interest in the scholarship of global engagement. One related project, funded by the Colonial Academic Alliance, examines transformative learning experienced by students at Elon and James Madison University during and upon return from study away programs. I also enjoy facilitating and supporting the scholarship of colleagues in my role as director of the Center for Research on Global Engagement.

I am truly passionate about understanding how people learn in everyday social and cultural contexts – in early childhood, cooking with parents and playing outside with siblings and friends, or in college, conducting research with a faculty mentor and studying away in diverse communities. Early childhood learning lays the foundation for lifelong intellectual capacity and curiosity. As a society, we need to provide opportunities for all children to learn and develop in supportive and challenging environments.

In higher education, we must encourage young adults to learn from multiple mentors in sustained educational experiences. These relationships are key for future personal and professional success and well-being. Engaging across differences and learning from others in diverse cultural communities are critical components of Elon’s mission of “preparing students to be global citizens and informed leaders motivated by concern for the common good.” As a college educator, my passion for supporting learning and global engagement transcends all the work I do.