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New dimensions of early childhood education

KEYNOTE ADDRESS: ELLEN BOOTH CHURCH

New dimensions of Early Childhood Education

Those of us in the field of early childhood care and education (ECCE) have always known how important the early years are, but new brain research and studies indicate that the first 2,000 days of a child’s life are crucial for making important synaptic connections in the brain. These are the days covering the period from birth to the time most children enter kindergarten. The latest research shows that the work we do with infants has a significant effect on their success in school and life.

Children learn through their interaction with caring adults, peers, interesting materials and the world around them. Their brains are developing but as Harvard professor Dr. Jack Shonkoff says, “brains are built, not born”. According to Dr. Shonkoff, “the brain is one of the only organs not fully developed at birth. Most of the cells are there, but the connections — the wiring that forms the architecture — are not.” Therefore the phrase “use it or lose it”, can be applied to children’s brains in early childhood. Brains not used may “fade away”.

Young children who come to our classrooms are embarking on a voyage of schooling that could last more than 14 years. Along the way, they will meet a variety of children, teachers, and people. How do we prepare them for this journey? We need to teach them the social and emotional skills which will support them as they grapple with content at each level of schooling. I recommend the ‘7Cs’ to prepare infants for their long journey through academia.

Cooperation. The activities you plan and the games and songs you use teach children to work cooperatively with others. In many ways, any activity you present to your class is cooperative activity because children must share, take turns, and listen. Through the challenge of working in groups, children learn how to regulate their feelings, behaviour, and attention spans.

Communication. For children to become members of cooperative groups, they have to be able to communicate with others. This is an important skill to develop in the early years because of the widely divergent language learning capabilities of children.

Some children come to school with a vast vocabulary and are very self-expressive. Others might just look at you with big wide eyes and say little or nothing! When children feel comfortable with expressing ideas and opinions, they become more open to learning in all areas of the curriculum. 

Curiousity. Children are naturally curious. The smallest pebble on the sidewalk can open the doors of wonder and experimentation. Science, math, art and language learning begins simultaneously in that moment of wonder. But curiousity is also an important skill for social and emotional learning. How many times have you heard a child ask: “Why does she look different? Why does he walk funny?” and similar questions. These curious queries create the right moment for teachers and parents to discuss acceptance and understanding of people with similarities and differences. 

Caring. Curiousity can lead to caring, compassion and empathy. When children notice similarities and differences among their classmates, they also learn to accept that although children are not all alike, they all have feelings that can be hurt and helped by caring interaction. It’s amazing to watch little ones care for a new child in class and offer to help struggling children. Shared activities help them to see how to support, and actively care for each other. 

Contemplation. This might seem like an unusual ‘C’ to include in this list for youngest children. But it’s a skill children need to learn from infancy. This is the art of listening to our hearts and learning to relax during our interplay with the world — to pause and reflect. The good news from around the country and the world is that children love “pregnant pauses”. Teachers report a positive shift in the social and emotional climates of their classrooms when children are encouraged to contemplate and reflect.

Confidence. This is the natural outcome of the observance and practice of the other five Cs. It is essential for educators to develop children’s sense of confidence and self-esteem. This is an enduring skill that will help children understand that it’s safe to express an opinion, try something new, or even make mistakes. If children believe in themselves they will tackle the more difficult learning challenges in all areas of the curriculum, which will help them develop the attributes of persistence and resilience.

Competence. The last of the ‘7Cs’ that is the obvious consequence of the other Cs — especially confidence — is competence. When children develop confidence in themselves, they automatically develop the competence to address the challenges of the world.

Yet at bottom, it’s very important for early childhood educators to remember that inculcating the ‘7Cs’ through play is the most appropriate pedagogy to prepare the youngest for the long journey through academia and adulthood.

(Ellen Booth Church is a US-based early childhood educator and author of Getting to the Heart of Learning (Gryphon, 2015)

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