When children are young, they are learning sponges. You can never have a greater impression on a person than when they are in their early childhood years.
As teachers, we have always inherently understood this. The importance of early childhood education has finally moved to the forefront of the domestic agenda. Indeed, the President identified this in his 2013 State of the Union address, stating in part:
“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children…studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”
President Barack Obama
State of the Union, February 12, 2013
Early childhood education is essential in preparing all children to be constant learners – this sets the tone for success in all aspects of future life. It is about honing and molding the holistic child, which will eventually form the basis of their lifelong journey.
- Early experience affects the development of the brain and lays the foundation for intelligence, emotional health and moral development.
- Healthy early development depends on nurturing and consistent, dependent relationships.
- Healthy early development, and particularly school readiness, is dependent on how young children think and feel.
- Rapid changes in society mean that the needs of many young children are not being met.
- Early intervention is important and well-designed, accessible early intervention programs are needed for children at risk.
In the oft-referenced study “The HighScope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40 (2005)”, 123 children born in poverty were randomly selected and put into groups that either (A) received premium preschool education based on Highscope’s approach or (B) the control group who did not receive any preschool program.
The most recent results are from interviews with the participants as 40 year olds. Data on the participants’ school, arrest and social services records were gathered. Findings show the test group who received preschool education committed fewer crimes and had higher high school graduation rates and better employment outcomes than the control group.
Similarly, a New Zealand study (The Competent Children Study) followed 500 children from early childhood through to 12–14 years of age. Findings demonstrated a lasting contribution to children’s competency levels. The effects of quality early childhood education settings were still influencing children’s maths and literacy competence at 12 years of age (Wylie, 2004).
So, what are the important aspects of early childhood education? The key elements from my professional experience of more than 35 years, are listed below.
Socialization with people other than the child’s family in a safe environment and in a larger group of children.
Concept of cooperation
Learning how to share, cooperate, take turns and persevere within a safe learning environment, guided by professionals who have the children’s best interests at heart.
Encouraging holistic development
The approach taken to build a strong foundation for a child’s emotional, social, physical and mental development, which will prepare a child for a life time.
Enthusiasm for lifelong learning
Lessons should be given in a fun and exciting way that will encourage the children to be effective learners. We need to inspire a thirst for learning with eagerness and enthusiasm. Love of education – for reading, learning, discovery, nature – takes root in preschool.
Convey the value of education through experience
Grasping the value of learning and education by setting an example as role models and by providing actual experiences.
Teaching the value of respect for others. This is not limited to people and belongings, but can also mean respect for their environment, both immediate and global.
Demonstrating and instilling the importance of teamwork that can give exposure to other’s values such as respecting the opinion of others, listening, cooperation and equality
It is important for early childhood educators and parents to work together in developing resilience in children as early as possible. By creating a consistent, secure and fair social environment, with clear expectations and predictable consequences, children can develop skills in managing themselves and their emotions. Teachers need to provide a challenging environment where children can learn through first hand experiences. They may experience bumps, bruises or losing a game but this is the foundation for building coping strategies for greater challenges in life.
During preschool years, children explore at every opportunity to discover new things, new experiences, new friends and new environments. Their minds are so lively and imaginative. As early childhood educators we need to balance this zest with the ability to listen, follow directions, attend to tasks and participate in group activities as concentration is a critical life skill.
Children need opportunities to be involved in an abundance of social experiences where they can explore and practice the social skill of patience. By teaching through examples, role modelling and social experiences, children are able to develop their patience and learn to wait for their turn. Examples from the preschool setting include sharing a teacher’s attention, a common toy, the playground or waiting in line for a game.
Confidence and self-esteem
This is critical to develop within the preschool years. A strong sense of wellbeing provides children with confidence, optimism and self-esteem which will encourage children to explore their talents, skills and interests. Positive interactions with other children and teachers will promote a positive, healthy and secure view of themselves.
Exposure to diversity
Valuing difference and diversity is crucial to a child’s early development. Early childhood education serves to guide children to appreciate and accept differences and makes for a well-rounded contributor to society. It is important that children understand that everyone is unique and special in their own way with their own culture, beliefs and ethnicity.
Exploring the diversity of culture, heritage and traditions in the preschool program is as equally important as the early childhood educator leading by example as this is the one way for young children to learn effectively. Preschool teachers should also be encouraged to be involved in continuous improvement for teaching and learning inclusive ways.
What is the most important element of early childhood education in your experience?