Ever stopped to consider the most significant event or time in your education?
Was it those intense discussions with your supervisor about what all your data meant, followed by writing up the many drafts of your PhD thesis? Was it an inspiring undergraduate lecture? Or was it cramming for hours on end before your school exams, so that you could get into the university course of your choice?
Would anyone even consider a time at primary school, or even kindergarten, as the most significant and important time for their education? Well, kindergarten is closer to the truth than you think.
The first five years of life are crucial in shaping a child's ability to learn and to think creatively. From birth onwards, children explore their world in an attempt to make sense of the things around them. What children learn by age five will often predict the success, or otherwise, of their lifelong education.
Recent research into the capacity of the brain to develop, change, learn and regulate emotion shows that the early years provide the greatest window of opportunity for learning we will ever have. Other research indicates that children who are unable to capitalise on this critical stage are unlikely to catch up - ever.
Children's vocabularies at age three are strong predictors of their literacy at age 10. It's not hard to make the connection between the quality of kindergarten or pre-school education and care and outcomes in senior schooling, higher education and the workforce.
How many of us can remember positive learning experiences in the kindergarten, or those rich and stimulating home environments that your parents provided when you were three or four years old? If you are reading this article, you probably had them.
Even more remarkably, the 2000 Nobel economics laureate, James Heckman, has illustrated how investment in early education provides economic returns that exceed most projects normally defined as economic development strategies, not to mention the long term social, emotional and life opportunity returns. Returns on investment for early childhood development programs have been calculated to be at least 8:1, compared with 3:1 for primary and secondary education.
Children develop and learn through their relationships with others, emphasising the importance of young children's relationships with adults and of secure attachment as the foundation of their learning.
The quality of a child's early environment and the availability of appropriate experiences and relationships at the right stages of development determine how a child will think.
It is important to focus on the early childhood stage of development to assist that learning, especially in situations of child poverty, ill health or special need. Timely early childhood interventions are not a luxury but critically foundational to long-term intellectual, physical, psychological, social and emotional functioning. The importance of the early years cannot be overestimated.
And if you remain unconvinced, put this pragmatic hypothesis from Fulghum (1998) to the test.
"Most of what I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten.
These are the things I learned:
- Share everything;
- Play fair;
- Don't hit people;
- Put things back where you found them;
- Clean up your own mess;
- Don't take things that aren't yours;
- Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody;
- Wash your hands before you eat;
- Flush the toilet;
- Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day;
- Take a nap every afternoon;
- When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together;
- Be aware of wonder."
By Associate Professors Christine Howitt and Robert Faulkner
UWA Graduate School of Education
Published in UWA News, 11June 2012