Early Childhood Education (ECE) is the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical needs. UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) mission is “to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development, and intercultural dialogue through education.” As per UNESCO’s manifesto: “Early childhood care and education (ECCE) is more than preparation for primary school. It aims at the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical needs to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and well-being. ECCE can nurture caring, capable and responsible future citizens.”
Early childhood education (ECE) encompasses all forms of education, both formal and informal, provided to young children up to approximately 8 years of age. This education is fundamental to the development of a child and can significantly shape the later years of an individual’s life.
Digging deeper, there are several different facets that all combine to contribute to a child’s early education. In terms of informal education, the primary source of input when it comes to a child’s development is, of course, its relationship with its parents or primary caregivers. In essence, parents can be considered to be a child’s first teachers. This relationship is especially critical between 0-2 years of age as the child begins to develop its sense of self and establishes an attachment with its parents. The quality of the attachment formed at this stage of life can have a significant impact on a child’s future education.
Child brain development and early childhood education
From birth to age 5, a child’s brain develops more than at any other time in life. And early brain development has a lasting impact on a child’s ability to learn and succeed in school and life. The quality of a child’s experiences in the first few years of life whether positive or negative; helps shape how their brain develops.
Essential brain development occurs in the first years of a child’s life. In the years in which the main brain development is made and the effect, this development has in schooling and later years, the importance of positive experiences in the early years is clear. Both parents and teachers can support a child’s early development by providing a safe and nurturing environment with learning opportunities and minimal stress.
The brain is the command center of the human body. A newborn baby has all of the brain cells (neurons) they’ll have for the rest of their life, but it’s the connections between these cells that make the brain work. Brain connections enable us to move, think, communicate and do just about everything. The early childhood years are crucial for making these connections. At least one million new neural connections (synapses) are made every second, more than at any other time in life.
Ante-natal: The child’s brain has already started developing. All 5 senses begin to function before birth. During this time, prenatal sensory experiences help shape the brain and nervous system. At birth, the average baby’s brain is about a quarter of the size of the average adult brain. Incredibly, it doubles in size in the first year. It keeps growing to about 80% of adult size by age 3 and 90% – nearly fully grown – by age 5.
The early years are the best opportunity for a child’s brain to develop the connections they need to be healthy, capable, successful adults. The connections needed for many important, higher-level abilities like motivation, self-regulation, problem-solving, and communication are formed in these early years or not formed. It’s much harder for these essential brain connections to be formed later in life.
2–6 months: Significant ‘wiring’ of the brain occurs in the first years of a child’s life. The baby’s brain is developing as a result of the experiences and relationships they are exposed to each day. Babies learn emotions through observing their parents and caregivers and how they react to various movements and sounds such as crying, yelling, smiling, and cooing.
6–9 months: By 9 months the child’s brain has already undergone a rapid growth spurt that helps form connections between what they see, hear, feel and taste. Playtime and interactions with parents and family members provide key learning opportunities for early development.
3 years: By 3 years of age a child’s brain has around 1,000 trillion brain connections (synapses). The early years are a rapid period of brain development that can be fostered by positive relationships with parents and optimal community environments for families and children. Engaging with a child and providing a safe environment and physical care to the child has a significant impact on the child’s development.
3–5 years: By school, a child’s brain development is built upon the now solid foundation created in the first 5 years. It is more difficult for children to take advantage of learning environments, such as school if they have not had optimal early learning experiences or a nurturing home environment.
Adolescence: When adolescence is reached, brain synapses will number around 500 trillion, a figure that remains relatively steady into adulthood. Brain development prioritizes the connections used most often, resulting in the ‘pruning’ of the brain networks and circuits.
It should be noted that different areas of the brain are responsible for different abilities, like movement, language, and emotion, and develop at different rates. Brain development builds on itself, as connections eventually link with each other in more complex ways. This enables the child to move and speak and think in more complex ways.
Adverse childhood experiences: Children who experience more positive interactions in their early years go on to be healthier and more successful in school and life. Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well. Poverty, exposure to family violence, and lack of access to quality early learning experiences can negatively impact a child’s early brain development, and subsequently, their long-term success.
Motor skills in children: Fine motor skills refer to small movements in the hands, wrists, fingers, feet, toes, lips, and tongue. Gross motor skills involve the motor development of muscles that enable babies to hold up their heads, sit and crawl, and eventually walk, run, jump and skip.
What is the difference between gross motor skills and fine motor skills?
Gross motor skills refer to the way children use their large muscles to learn skills like jumping, running, and climbing which are very important in the toddler years!
Fine motor skills refer to smaller muscle groups in your hands that are used for things like picking up small objects, writing/drawing, and turning the page in a book.
Motor skills 12-18 months: Toddlers typically start walking on their own around 12-15 months of age. Toddlers’ gross motor skills are developing quickly at this stage, as they are learning how to navigate all sorts of surfaces. After they have learned to walk you will continue to notice them becoming more coordinated and move into a hurried walk and then be able to run.
Toddlers might also start to kick and throw a ball, which is great for their gross motor skills. When it comes to fine motor skills your toddler will be able to draw or scribble spontaneously on paper. Kids will also master the skill of drinking from a cup, and learn how to use more complex utensils like forks and spoons. Normally children are interested in putting things in containers and taking them out. Stacking blocks or other objects up and knocking them down also becomes a source of entertainment.
Motor skills 18-24 months: At this age child’s walking/running skills have continued to become more coordinated and balanced, meaning your little one is falling less. They may now be interested in pushing and pulling larger objects like boxes or toy shopping carts. Climbing, going downstairs, and jumping will also become more of a focus for toddlers. When it comes to drawing and scribbling, a toddler may be able to imitate simple vertical lines or even a circle. Hand-eye coordination is improving so those block stacks are getting higher and they may be able to do things like fold a piece of paper in half.
Motor skills 24-36 months: At this stage, they’re probably running, jumping, climbing, and spinning with ease now. When playing games, we noticed that toddlers can do things like stand and hop on one foot. Active play should be incorporated frequently into the day so that they can practice these skills and burn energy. They may now be able to walk upstairs with alternating feet, but going down they may still need a bit more practice. Pushing/pulling larger objects will likely still be a focus along with more complex tasks like stacking blocks in order from smallest to largest or drawing vertical lines.
Simple ways to build fine motor skills during play: There are many ways that you can help toddlers to build fine skills throughout the day. Play is one of the ways children learn best so providing them with opportunities to use their hands can be a great way to books fine motor abilities. For example blocks, play-dough, puzzles, balls, etc.
Toddlers love to turn pages in books, point to things they see, and hold the book themselves. Active play is crucial for toddlers to encourage gross motor skills. When they’re constantly on the go, their bodies can develop and improve balance, coordination, strength, and agility.
What could be done to help encourage toddler motor skills development?
Some of the best ways to encourage gross and fine motor control are by looking for ways to build these skills into play and daily routines. This allows little to learn in ways that are natural to them and offer lots of repetitive practice. We have to keep in mind that all children develop at their own pace. Being aware of milestones can be helpful.
Practical significance: Studies that have been performed over the past several decades have given added weight to the importance of early childhood education in preparing children to enter and succeed in a post-kindergarten school environment. Some of the benefits include a diminished risk of social-emotional mental health problems and increased self-sufficiency as children mature and enter adulthood.
One significant effect of ECE has been demonstrated in its capacity to close the educational achievement gap between low and high-income students. Historically, there has been a significant gap in educational performance between children of low socioeconomic status and those of high socioeconomic status. Studies have shown, however, that participation in ECE can increase high school graduation rates, improve performance on standardized tests, and reduce the number of students who have to repeat a grade or be placed in a special education program.
The elements of an early childhood education program
Over the years, there has been much debate over what the attributes of an effective early childhood education program are, which is because ECE is a relatively new field. More specifically, much of the debate has centered around what type of program qualifies as an actual educational experience, as opposed to simply providing care.
According to the National Education Association, a high-quality ECE program consists of five important components:
- It should provide a well-rounded curriculum that supports all areas of development
- It should address child health, nutrition, and family needs as part of a comprehensive service network
- It should assess children to enhance student learning and identify concerns
- It should employ well-educated, adequately paid teachers
- It should provide small class sizes and low teacher-child ratios
These five components should, therefore, be the core pillars of any quality early childhood education program. However, additional characteristics of a high-quality program include nutritious meals and snacks, a strong foundation in language development, early literacy, and math, and teachers who frequently measure children’s progress.
The Pakistan scenario
Policymakers, teachers, parents, and other concerned parties must be sensitized to the importance and significance of ECE.
Efforts are being made by organizations to make education accessible to children across Pakistan with a focus on providing learning and livelihood opportunities for youths and adults and rehabilitating vulnerable groups including those forced into child labor. However, a massive improvement in investment and funding by the government is the only way forward.
Even though early childhood education is highly beneficial for the growing mind, over 175 million children globally are not receiving any form of pre-primary education as per the UN reports. The country falls short when it comes to keeping students in the system. Pakistan happens to have the second-highest number of out-of-school children (OOSC) with an estimated 22.8 million children aged 5-16 not attending school altogether, which second highest in the world, after Somalia. Only in the Province of Sindh 6.3 million children are out of school.
Early childhood education has historically been a neglected area within the Pakistani education framework. The deficient public provision has over the years been supplemented with private schools mostly located in urban areas, many of which are not accessible by low-income families.
The author, Mr. Nazir Ahmed Shaikh is a freelance writer, columnist, blogger, and motivational speaker. He writes articles on diversified topics. Mr. Shaikh could be contacted at nazir_shaikh86@hotmailcom.