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Perspectives on early years’ education

Perspectives on Early Years Education

If the Brain Works Best at Three, Why Wait Until Five?

Estelle Shumann

This post explores early years’ education from two perspectives: Part 1 written by Estelle Shumann explores the hidden potential of the first three years of life and discusses how educational and government policies could be better used to maximise children’s development. Part 2 by Sally Goddard Blythe explains some of the processes involved in development in the first three years cautioning that “too much, too soon” can also be detrimental to longer term development.

Part 1 Compulsory schooling in America begins at the age of five. Mothers take a deep breath, fathers learn to let go and kids don their backpacks and take their sets in class. While a distance learning school program is available for families looking for a jump start on education, it isn’t an option for every family. So, as kids head off to school at five, many are left worrying that it isn’t quite early enough.

Psychologists have long understood that the first three years of life are the period during which the foundation for learning is laid. The majority of brain growth – the time when synapses and connections are formed – occurs in the first three years of life and parents are the primary teachers during this time.

Many parents are uncertain as to how exactly they can help prepare their child for school or even of the components of school readiness. The early childhood development program, Head Start, defines school readiness as “possessing the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for success in school and for later learning and life.” These skills and knowledge span the areas of gross motor readiness, oral language skills, emotional readiness and possession of basic pre-math and phonetic skills. Children who do not have these basic readiness skills are less likely to be successful academically and more likely to experience stress when starting school.

Quality early childhood care, for those children who attend such a program in the pre-school years has lasting positive effects as demonstrated by the Abecedarian Project, a more than 30 year study conducted by researchers at the FPG Child Development Institute. The oft-cited study followed 111 children from low-income homes to assess differences in educational status between those who received early childhood education services and those who did not. The results of the study were striking; 30 years later, those adults who had participated in high quality early childhood programs were more likely to have had long-term employment, less likely to have received public assistance and had attained more years of schooling than those who were not enrolled in child care.

It is, of course, important to note that that the child care services studied in the Abecedarian Project offered what was classified as “high quality” educational intervention, meaning that the children participated in activities that were designed to encourage development in the cognitive and social realms.

High quality pre-school or child care programs are those that encourage verbal communication, link the written word with verbal language, nurture positive caregiver-child interaction and provide activities that develop gross and fine motor skills. In high quality child care programs, the activities and structure are developmentally appropriate and implemented by staff who possess a basic understanding of childhood development and the importance of activities that stimulate cognitive, motor and emotional growth.

Another important dimension of quality early childhood intervention is that it both acknowledges and nurtures the connections between school, family and early learning. These programs actively involved parents in volunteering, provided ideas or assistance with implementing home-based learning activities and provided opportunities for parents to offer their input regarding program activities and goals.

The research clearly indicates that early childhood care has a dramatic impact on educational attainment later in life. Policy makers should take note of this fact when considering funding and access to these programs for children of all economic backgrounds. Additionally, educating the public as to the components that make up quality early childhood intervention programs will assist families in choosing care that will best nurture learning in their children.

Part 2.

What are the foundations of school readiness?

Sally Goddard Blythe

In making recommendations for policies in the future we need to remain aware, that although early years education can help to support children’s growth and development, particularly for children growing up in deprived areas and impoverished environments, “too much, too soon” can also stunt children’s development in other ways.  Children are not miniature adults. Development of the brain and nervous system in the early years takes place in the context of the physical world and is not a purely cognitive process.

How do the areas of gross motor readiness, oral language skills, emotional readiness and possession of basic pre-math and phonetic skills develop in the first three years?

Knowledge of the world begins with physical interaction with the environment and social engagement with consistent and responsive caregivers.  While maturation is an intrinsic process it unfolds in the context of physical relationships and is entrained through the primary medium of movement through physical activity.  Ray Barsch described the child in the first years of life as a “terranaut” –  a space explorer – who must learn how to function in a gravity based environment in order to develop good control over the body. Body control is acquired as posture, balance and coordination develop, and these fundamental skills are needed to sit still, manipulate a writing instrument, command the sequential eye movements involved in reading, catching a ball and even judging space and distance. In other words, physical control of the body is an essential precursor to learning success.  There is a danger that if children are forced into sedentary and primarily cognitive activities before these skills are in place, they may experience early failure or under-achieve in the classroom later on.

Physical activity is the “bread and butter” of the first three years of life.  The sense of balance  – the master of movement control – is learned through rolling, crawling, tottering on two feet, falling and learning how not to fall again;  through running, jumping, climbing, swinging and sliding. As a child learns confidence in control of the body, he also develops a sense of security and self-regulation.  Movement is a child’s first language, and a child learns about the world with his body before he learns with his brain. In maximising the potential of the first three years, the body is the primary learning tool.

The foundations for oral language skills have their origins in life before birth.  The unborn child is able to hear a limited range of muffled sounds, which roughly correspond to the range of the human voice from as early as 24 weeks after conception.  The voice that has most influence before birth is that of the mother because it is sensed as both an internal and external force, and introduces the child to the patterns, intonations, rhythms and cadences of his mother tongue – the music of language.  It will take one to two years after birth for the infant to develop recognisable speech and speech development is highly dependent on having sufficient experience of language.  First time mothers are sometimes shy of talking to a baby who they insist does not understand a word they say and does not talk back, but children learn to use language through being talked to, through imitation, through listening, reflecting back and being listened to.  Electronic media cannot develop speech in the same way that another human being can, because it is not a flexible “listener” and does not respond to what the infant has to say.  Oral language skills develop through dialogue not through the monologue of pre-programmed background noise.

Written language was the product of an oral tradition, in which information was passed on through the telling of stories and singing of songs.  In much the same way that our ancestors developed written symbols to represent sounds, so the young child must learn to discriminate between different sounds and build up a memory of sounds before he can  translate those and sounds to and from visual symbols on the page (writing and reading).  The first lesson in reading is not decoding letters and words on a page, but listening and repeating the sounds of language through nursery rhymes, songs, action games and listening to stories. If parents want to optimise learning potential in the early years, it is best done through the joy of shared activities and the process of play.

Maths concepts are also built on an understanding of the concrete world.  Modern calculus began with the use of small stones as counting instruments; spatial awareness needed to understand geometric forms and relationships begins with a physical understanding of what shapes are – the similarity between an orange, a ball and a circle – and the simple arithmetical concepts of addition and subtraction, multiplication and division are rooted in an understanding of the reversal of processes.  Once again,  it is the physical world which provides the basis for this conceptual understanding.

While many parents in competitive western technological societies are anxious to start their children on the road to academic success as early as possible, the foundations for that success are rooted in a child’s physical competence in the world.  Yes, a child learns more in the first three years of life than it will during all its years in elementary school, but that learning is literally “child’s play”.  In seeking to maximise the potential of the first three years adults must remember the developmental needs of children.



Barsch RH, 1968.  Achieving motor perceptual efficiency.  A space oriented approach to learning. Volume 1 of a perceptual-motor curriculum.  Special Child Publications. Seattle.

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