What is Early Childhood Education?

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A definition of Early Childhood Education.

Early childhood education is a formal arrangement for the teaching and care of a young child. Early childhood education is provided for babies, toddlers and young children up to the age of 6 years.  It may be provided in the child’s home or at an early childhood centre.

Licensed and publicly early childhood services are the recognised providers of early childhood education in NZ.   

It is not compulsory for a child to be enrolled in early childhood education. However, around 94 to 96 percent of all children attend an early childhood service for some time before they start school.  Attendance at school is compulsory from 6 years.

Parents may use ECE to provide child care 

Leaving child in childcare

It’s not the kiwi way for parents to seek to hothouse their children.  No parent in New Zealand needs to send a child to early childhood education to get into their school of choice. There is some confirmation of this in the early findings from Auckland University’s Growing Up in New Zealand study which shows that at nine months of age the main reason for the use of regular non-parental care was for childcare because of parent study or work commitments.

The Growing Up study is following 6790 children born in the North Island in 2009 and 2010 until they turn 21.  In the 2nd report from the study “Now we are Born” data on the children at 9 months is provided. Regular non-parental care was used for 35 per cent of the children for an average of 23 hours per week.  Of those in non-parental care for more than eight hours a week 40% used an early childhood centre, and 32% were being looked after by their grandparents.  Smaller numbers were with another relative, a nanny or home-based educator.

The “Now we are Born” report states that the main reason children were in non-parental care was because of “their mother’s work or study commitments (87%). A few of these children were in ECE to give their mothers some time alone (4.0%), or to establish a relationship with their grandparent(s) (2.7%), while some parents reported that ECE was used because it was good for their child’s development, or because they wanted them to mix with other children of the same age”

Of the 65% of children in the study who were not in any regular form of non-parental care situation at nine months, the main reasons given were that ECE was not needed (76%) or that they did not want their child to be cared for by strangers (12%).  Barriers of cost, unavailability of places, transport (etc.) were cited by very small numbers of parents (between 1 – 5%).

So what this particular research shows is that for parents with 9 month-olds ECE is overwhelmingly used for the purpose of childcare.  

Benefits and risks of participating in early childhood education

The experience of going to an early childhood centre, learning to be part of a larger group and exposure to an educational curriculum can hugely benefit children. When considering how good a service is for your child, check if its meeting the six signs of quality early childhood education. There is a directory of early childhood education centres on the parents My ECE website for anyone looking childcare.

Unfortunately not every child goes home safe at the end of the day.  Serious incidents, even death, can and do occur. 

A child’s home-background and home learning environment is something that is important to take account of when determining how much benefit is gained from attending an early childhood centre

  • If the early childhood education programme is better resourced and the learning experiences provided for children are better than what can be provided for at home then the child will be advantaged academically. 
  • But if the quality of the early childhood education programme is lower than that of the quality of the child’s home learning environment, the child is not likely to be greatly advantaged by participating, family background factors, including parents’ education level and home learning environment has a much greater influence on children’s development and achievement. Having said that, every parent and every child would want to experience a quality of ECE at least equivalent to the quality of their home setting.

Also, what a lot of people do not realise is that any learning gains a child makes by attending early childhood education can wash out really quickly depending on the primary school the child later attends and its quality.  This is one reason why there is a focus on school and early childhood and school teachers working together to provide continuity and support for children transitioning to school. 

Early childhood education teaching approaches 

Some people think that early childhood education in NZ is about the structured teaching of numbers, reading, writing, etc, to prepare children for school.

In some early childhood programmes it may mean this, but in most programmes the philosophy is that children learn through play with the guidance and support of adults.  Parents should know what the essential skills for children to have before starting school, so they can help their child to develop these skills.

Gardening

The best start to a formal school education you can give a young child is to help the child to learn to develop independence, along with developing thinking and problem solving skills. 

Things you can do to encourage a young child to develop independence include: learning to make his/her own breakfast, tidying up his/her own toys after play, carrying his her own bag, and learning to dress and undress without help. 

For developing thinking and problem solving skills:

  • provide puzzles for the child to practice on and add harder puzzles as the child’s skill develops
  • ask the child questions and together chat about possible solutions and  answers, for instance how does a butterfly grow inside such a tiny cocoon?
  • support the child to persevere when a task is proving hard and affirm the importance of practice as being important for obtaining success.
  • help the child to expand his/her knowledge through hands-on activities and experiences.  Provide lots of play-based learning opportunities, lots of discussion, fun, and engaging in a broad range of activities in the community, through travel, shopping, going on nature walks, watching a building being constructed, etc. 

The early childhood curriculum is called “Te Whāriki“.  It is not like a school curriculum. It does not prescribe formal subject teaching.

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