/ 22 November 2019

Early childhood learning gives children a headstart in life

Early learning difficulties lead to school dropout, poor matric results, repeated school years and a less effective system for preparing young people for the world




Never a truer word was spoken last year than that by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his State of the Nation speech: “If we are to break the cycle of poverty, we need to educate the children of the poor.” He also declared: “Early-grade reading is possibly the single most important factor in overcoming poverty, unemployment and inequality.”

Given that 78% of South African grade 4 pupils cannot read for meaning in any language, the implications are far-reaching. Stellenbosch University education researcher Nic Spaull said an inability to read properly meant “many learners never get a firm grasp on the first rung of the academic ladder and fall further and further behind”.

There is global consensus on the premise that the first 1 000 days of a child’s life hold the key to unlocking their lifelong potential — with good reason: by the age of five, 90% of a child’s brain will have developed. When children have adequate healthcare, wholesome nutrition, quality childcare, early learning and stimulation, they have what is necessary to boost their sensory, emotional, cognitive, social and physical development from birth until they reach school-going age, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

Early childhood development is broadly defined as the programmes, activities and experiences focused on promoting the education of children from birth until formal pre-schooling (grade R).

The difference between children exposed to early childhood development and those who aren’t is stark. The former are often streaks ahead, and this advantage becomes almost exponential as the years unfold.

Early interaction with peers means children become socialised. Group work skills are an outflow of daily activities at early childhood development centres. When teamwork is required, these children show more confidence and find it easier to contribute to the task at hand. Communication flows naturally and listening skills are honed.

Empathy is a priceless building block and this may be easier to nurture in a setting where there is greater interaction with others. Emotional intelligence is a natural consequence in quality early childhood development settings. Negotiating is par for the course, and fostering friendships is encouraged. Children quickly learn about acceptable behaviour and behaviour that will not be tolerated. Children tend to process requests and receive instruction more easily than their less advantaged peers.

Reading, writing and arithmetic skills come far easier to those children in early childhood development centres and gives them the edge in “big school”. A love for reading can be boosted through regular story time sessions.

Physical development is encouraged through sports and play. If, for example, a child shows a lag in fine motor skills development, this can be addressed through remedial activities. Creativity is expressed through music and art activities, and natural talents are easily identified at an early age.

Cecile Kiley wrote this article on behalf of the Read Institute