2. What early childhood education offers children and families

When discussing the benefits of early childhood education, policy makers and researchers often focus on its proven role in reducing the number of children who have behaviour, learning or health problems. Those without a defined challenge are assumed “good enough” and somehow not deserving of support.14 But parents want more than good enough; they want their children to be the best they can be.

Breastfeeding and early brain development

Health and well-being at every stage of the life course is influenced by nutrition, beginning with the mother’s pre-conception nutritional status, continuing through pregnancy to early infancy and beyond. Research shows that a child’s tastes and eating habits are formed early in life with consequences for later obesity and also academic achievement.16

The macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are particularly important during prenatal and early development, when brain development and body growth is rapid.

The World Health Organization and others emphasizes the importance of breastfeeding in the first six months for lifelong health.17 A recent study indicates a strong relationship between breastfeeding and cognitive outcomes.18 Breastfeeding for as little as four weeks showed a positive and significant effect on academic test scores.

Children who have intimate relationships at home, whose physical and emotional needs are met and who have friendships with other children are primed to learn from the world around them. New experiences and challenges provide them with the learning they need for later competencies. Educators trained in early childhood development help parents to stimulate their children’s learning by responding to their cues and initiating interactions. This “doing together” is the foundation of the confident learner. Even the youngest infant learns from these interactions.

Early childood educator Petra is joined by parents and their young infants who range in age from 2 to 6 months. Many in the group participated in a prenatal group offered by public health and continue to meet each week. Petra greets each new arrival, listening to accounts of first smiles, sleepless nights and the introduction of solid foods. Petra finds ways to boost parent confidence by noting their babies’ communication cues. She remarks to Dria how baby Quinn squirms pleasurably and coos when Dria puts her face close and talks to him.

Children’s physical needs for safety, nutrition, health care and hygiene are basic for ensuring their security and survival. Healthy children eat healthy foods, get enough rest and play in safe, secure environments. Parents and other caregivers spend a great deal of time changing diapers and cleansing, feeding children or helping them learn to feed themselves, serving food and cleaning up afterward, helping with hand-washing and face-wiping and changing clothes after spills or accidents. Physical care is a core part of development. Through these repeated routines of daily life, children experience gentleness and adults demonstrate skills that children eventually acquire themselves.

Eighteen-month-old Zehra climbs the stairs to the diaper change table assisted by Darlene, an early childhood educator. Darlene and Zehra sing their special song as Zehra mounts the stairs; the same song they have used at each diaper change. Now Zehra gets a clean diaper and initiates the song to let Darlene know she wants to be changed. Her physical competency and sense of self are encouraged as she mounts the table on her own and lies down, rather than being lifted and put in place. The song calms Zehra as she transitions from playing to being cleaned. As part of the routine, Zehra hands the diaper to Darlene; in exchange, Darlene gives Zehra a cloth to wipe her hands. Darlene explains each step and Zehra now delights in indicating to Darlene what comes next.

Babies use sounds and then gestures to communicate. Oral language expands their repertoire for communication as they acquire the abilities to make their needs known, exchange ideas, convey feelings and connect with others. The capacity to express themselves with language offers expanded capabilities to regulate their behaviour and get along with others. When children are deeply involved in pretend play with each other, they determine goals and carry out tasks, provide opportunities to recall a storyline and use increasingly complex language. They become storytellers creating new versions of familiar narratives and composing new ones. Preschoolers’ abilities to use complex narratives and more advanced oral language are linked to improved reading comprehension and fluency15 as they transition in the primary grades from learning to read, to reading to learn.

A group of preschool children are following the construction of a condominium next door. Children stand at the fence and watch the parade of cement mixers, diggers, front-end loaders and cranes. Three-year-old Pedro sits down on a tricycle and moves back and forth, making a rumbling sound. Other children ride over on tricycles and wagons and join Pedro. Aisha, an early childhood educator, brings out large building blocks, cardboard tubes, large empty boxes and hard hats. The children eagerly begin to construct a building they call “the big condo”. Aisha decides to extend the outside play time. Several days later, the area includes structures made out of blocks, tubes and boxes; picture and word signs giving directions for construction vehicles and warnings of danger; and pails and shovels for hauling sand around in the sand box.

The children are asking more and more questions about the construction vehicles and about the many tools the workers are using. Four-year-old Emily wants to know how the water and electricity will be part of the building. Aisha brings in several picture books about construction from the local library. She tells the children that she does not know the answers but she can help them find answers in the book. Hassan suggests they use the internet in the library to look up more information. Several children are drawing pictures about building construction and asking how to spell words like “condominium” and “front-end loader”. Aisha and the children now take pictures every morning and document what progress they observe in a book they are making called “The Big Condo”.

Early childhood education is not solely concerned with academic goals. A child’s world is often too big for them to control. Fearfulness and anxiety are expected and appropriate responses. Children need supportive caring adults to help them discover their surroundings from a safe place. Brain research shows that emotional and cognitive self-regulation have the same neural roots. Warm physical contact with adults helps build the neural pathways in children that manage emotional responses. When adults are responsive to children’s feelings, children are better able to organize both their thinking and their behaviour as they grow and their brains develop.

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.2

Michael arrives at the centre with 2-year-old Cleo. As they enter the playroom Cleo turns to her father, clings to his leg and begins to cry. Michael picks her up, strokes her back and talks softly to soothe her. As Cleo’s crying slows down, Janette, the early childhood educator, approaches and talks quietly to Michael. Their conversation begins to interest Cleo as Janette tells Michael how much Cleo enjoys the playhouse. When Cleo stops crying, Janette suggests she show her dad how she makes cookies in the play oven. After a short demonstration Cleo is ready for her day and kisses Michael goodbye.

The feeling of being included is a prerequisite for early learning. Children and their families are part of broader communities: neighbourhood, faith, ethnocultural, school, professional and workplace. Children bring traditional practices, values, beliefs and the experiences of family and community to early childhood programs. Their sense of inclusion increases in environments that allow their full participation and promotes attitudes, beliefs and values of equity and democracy.19

Four-year-old Juan speaks Spanish and his mother wants him to learn English. He follows the daily routines at the centre and seems to understand what is being said, but he speaks very little. Juan’s mother wants to take home picture books with simple text to read to him at home. Her own English is limited, but she thinks she should only use English at home. Juan’s early childhood educator, Nathan, suggests: “Let’s try some storybooks without text. You and Juan can tell the story together in Spanish. We use the same books here and tell the story in English. Juan will make the connections. And he is learning—he already understands a lot of English. It is Juan’s birthday next week. Can you join us in the morning or at the end of the day to celebrate his birthday and to introduce myself and the other children to a few Spanish words?”

Many children negotiate a second language. They benefit when early childhood educators show they value other languages. Children need opportunities to learn in the language they understand at the same time as they acquire a new language. As they continue to learn vocabulary and conceptual skills in their home language they are better equipped to acquire skills in a second language.20

Early childhood programs live alongside other institutions, including public media and political dialogue. Racial, religious and ethnic tensions and incidents are often part of the context. Confronting prejudices and taking action to avoid discrimination and biases increase a sense of belonging of children and families.21

Families attending the centre include professional, two-income earning parents working in nearby offices and parents who are employed in the garment industry. Many of the families are newcomers to Canada and live on low incomes. Elisa works with the preschool children and wants to create a learning environment that respects diversity and identity. She takes pictures of the children and their families to paste in their cubbies.

Children need regular opportunities for vigorous and sustained play. Rough-and-tumble activities, crawling through tubes, ball throwing, jumping over sticks or riding a tricycle are vigorous play. Beyond the obvious health benefits that come with physical activity, preschool children experience other welldocumented benefits, including improved sensorymotor coordination, social negotiation skills and vocabulary, and increased sentence complexity and sensory integration.22 Active Healthy Kids Canada recommends that early childhood programs offer a minimum of 90 minutes of daily active play.23

Back outside, Sam and Micaela are chasing each other across the playground. Amid squeals of delight, they race each other up a small hill and roll down to the bottom over and over again.

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