Let’s Have the Early Childhood Education Conversation

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Yinka Awobo-Pearse

As I sit down to write this, I try to reflect on my early experiences as a toddler in school. What was my first day in school like? Did I like my teacher? Who were my friends in nursery school? I simply could not remember! There are a few exceptions to this, some people can remember this period of life. Others may remember some traumatic occurrences.

However, most of us aren’t able to recollect anything tangible from this period of our lives. This is the singular reason why early childhood education is relegated to the bottom in decision making and investments in education in Nigeria. Adults that make the decisions about this sector have no recollection of their experiences in early childhood. However, this nonchalant attitude to investing in quality early childhood education for all, is a profound mistake and a disservice to the 31 million Nigerian children five years and below. It is already manifesting in poor WAEC and JAMB results.

Early childhood refers to the period from birth to the age of six years. When you study child development, you learn that the brain of the human develops most rapidly in the first six years of life. Although, the brain continues to develop until 25 years old, this type of rapid development doesn’t occur in any other period in a human’s life. I was privileged to listen to a group of brain scientist from the University of Bristol, England at an early childhood seminar earlier this year.

They shared the results of their years of research into the brain of the child. They corroborated this rapid brain development in the first six years and also shared some information that I found to be life changing. Executive functions are developed in the first six years of life. Executive functions are the skills that have been identified as a requirement for every human being to exist in the workplace and the society at large. Skills like; communication, learning to learn, mental flexibility, problem solving, self-regulation, critical thinking and working memory. These skills are desired in the workplace and have been found to be lacking in recent university graduates which prompted this research. Yet, these skills are learnt naturally in the early years. The brain of the child in the 0-6 years phase, with the rapid pace of growth is able to learn these skills easily and successfully. This finding confirms what we already know, that access to quality early childhood education is crucial and important in the life of the child.

Early childhood education is the foundation of the child’s education. To have access to quality early childhood education is equivalent to building a solid educational foundation. If builders have accepted that every structure needs a strong foundation, have resigned to spend time and money to build the foundation, why do we not see the need and the value in investing time and money in early childhood education?

What should investment in early childhood education look like? Dr. Montessori noted that the child learns unconsciously in the first three years of life, absorbing information from her/his environment without effort. She described an absorbent mind that isn’t capable of discriminating good or bad information, but, absorbs all. She emphasised the importance of the environment in the education of the child’s mind. This tells us that it isn’t enough to put a child in a room with an adult, we must spend time thinking about what type of adult should be in the room and what type of training this adult must possess in order to adequately support the child’s development. We must also think about what equipment we put in this room and what experiences the child will garner from these.

Piaget was one of the first people to talk about what we now know that children learn differently. If so, then children aged 0-6 years must be taught differently from primary school aged children. Children in early childhood cannot learn by rote neither can they be taught in large groups with the teacher commanding the room from the front. The teachers need to be equipped to relate to the child at their level of development for the child to learn. Early years teachers must be trained in early childhood development and how this impacts their classrooms before being placed in the classroom with children. Placing an untrained adult to support children in the early years could result in damage or stunting of their development.

Piaget also talked about learning using concrete objects. You cannot teach a three-year-old about oranges without showing the child a picture of an orange or preferably a real orange. The child doesn’t yet possess the mental capability to abstract. You only learn to abstract after learning with a concrete or real object. Classrooms in the early years require thought and preparation to include the appropriate equipment.

We must invest in teacher training and in providing the right learning materials for the child during the early years.

A good percentage of children in Nigeria, at least in Lagos State schools, start school at age three. Most children are able to speak clear words by age two. Although, influenced by nature, language is needed to aid the child’s learning and understanding. In other words, learning cannot proceed without language. Earlier when I talked about executive functions, one of these, communication, is a major part of the outcome of education. We must then be conscious of the language development of the child and how parents can support this at home before the child comes to school. For parents that can afford to, they send their children to creche where the professionals are able to support the child’s language development. For parents that can’t afford to send their children to creche, they need to be educated on how to support their children’s natural development at home. Parental support is as important in the early years as it is throughout the child’ education career.

Most people, parents as well, view early childhood education as unnecessary and creches as play school. We now know that ‘play is the work of the child’ (Dr. Maria Montessori). Children learn through play. As such, children need to be in the right environment to learn through play. Parents need to be educated on how to support their children’s development at home and the value of early childhood education.

Adult to child ratios are also important in the early years. Although, a visit to some nursery schools’ early childhood classrooms confirms that the adult to child ratio has not been a point of consideration. No wonder, the learning outcomes are poor. In a largely populated classroom, it is tougher to spot children that have learning difficulties and or special needs. Unfortunately, these children fall through the cracks and the opportunity for early intervention to alleviate the disability or delay in these instances, are lost forever.

Although Nigeria has a policy on providing early childhood education, there needs to be a more concerted effort to provide the right type of education. Having a room for children with no learning resources, defeats the purpose of concrete learning which is important in the early years. Having an adult to 30-40 children in the classroom at age three years isn’t helping the children. Also, the lack of teaching resources hampers the development of the children.

Government policies should support the need for adequate investment in early childhood education. Also, for proper monitoring of the quality and content of what children are learning in the early childhood classrooms in both private and public schools.

Research has shown that children that have access to quality early childhood education go on to excel in life. Developing skills early in life that support them later and throughout their lives.

I go back to my musings about my early childhood education and relate this to all I have written above about child development. I can comfortably state that I do not remember because I was learning unconsciously. Whatever my experiences in those early years, I seem to have developed some executive functions that I now apply in my job as an educator.

It is time we begin to take early childhood education seriously as a nation. We have examples of other nations that have invested in early childhood and are now reaping the results of great outcomes at all levels. I will end my conversation with the popular Chinese proverb “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

If you liked reading this article, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Awobo-Pearse has been teaching in early years for 15 years and is a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) certified teacher trainer