How Can Children in Early Years (ECCDE) Continue Learning through COVID-19 Pandemic?

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eccde means - Early Childhood Care Development and Education

Yinka Awobo-Pearse

The world is facing unprecedented times and most of us have gone through what I will call the five phases of this pandemic. The first one is denial, not accepting the realities. The second is fear and paralysis, not able to function. The third is acceptance, when you accept that this is the new reality. The fourth is figuring out how you will function in this new order. The fifth and an important step is when you begin to readjust your thinking, reorient yourself to what we are calling the ‘new normal’, and gradually, resume your life in the present reality. The timing from the first to the fourth phase is usually the longest for most people. Once you accept what the status is, you are better able to navigate the issues.

The pandemic induced lockdown and school closures has caused educators all over the world to ardently embrace technology as a vehicle of learning. Schools worldwide, immediately migrated to schooling online in varying degrees. In Lagos and Ogun States, we gladly witnessed learning on radio, TV and online for primary and secondary school pupils. Early years learning did not feature in all of the governments’ efforts. It may be because, it either was not considered priority, nursery schooling is not that important, or everyone is at a loss as to what to do with children in early years. It is obvious that early childhood education is the most underrated, underfunded and neglected sector in the Nigerian public education space. This is unfortunate as early years education is the foundation on which solid primary and secondary education are built. The child develops executive functions and skills that will be applied to lifelong learning in the early years.

Two questions: How do we ensure the education of nursery school age children, 3-6 years old and pre-nursery, 2-3 years old is not truncated during this period? Why is it important to keep this age group meaningfully engaged?
Can children 2-6 years benefit from remote learning (online school) or does it even make sense?
To adequately answer these questions, we have to understand how children learn during this phase of development. Children 0-6 years old are directly influenced and impacted by their environment. The nursery school’s physical environment is designed and created by educators, teachers to cater for the child’s developmental needs.

The classrooms, playfields, activities are designed to support the child in all areas of development; physical, personal, social and emotional, communication and language, literacy, mathematics, understanding the world and encourage creativity and expressions. Learning and development, happens through everyday interactions and the child’s exploration and manipulations within the environment. Nursery school, the home and family make up the primary learning experiences for the child. The child at this age requires an organised environment to adequately cater for her/his developmental needs. I will add here that the brain develops most rapidly between the ages of 0-6 years old and even more rapidly in the first two years of life. The child’s brain not only needs proper nutrition, it also needs stimulation to develop. Also, during this stage, play is the work of the child. Everything the child ‘plays’ with, teaches the child something. It is important that the child continues to have access to the right environment, replete with age appropriate learning aids, to adequately support the child’s learning and development. This can and has been created online.

To think that a nursery aged child, 2-6 years old would stay devoid of structured learning until September or October, with no impact on their development, can only be considered naïve at best. A good number of parents view nursery schools as ‘daycare’, a place to leave their child whilst they go to work. The child is not really learning. Thus, most find it difficult to see why the child needs any structure at this point. No doubt, childcare is a big part of school for children below three years old. What we do not consider is that if the child is required to read and write by age five (in Nigeria), there must be stimulation of the brain from an early age. Also, child development research tells us that the child at this age, is unconsciously taking in all that is happening around him/her. This means that learning is going on, whether it is good, bad, ordered or random. It is important that the child’s learning is focused and purposeful.

The role of parents as co-teachers is most pronounced during the early years. In a perfect world, parents would provide a home environment that supports and nurtures their child’s learning and development. The reality is that many parents feel out of their depths and are not confident about their ability to support their child’s education. This is why nursery schools have remained a support and extension of the home for most children in urban areas around Nigeria and indeed the world over. The child also has an inner need for purposeful movement and activities that engage the hand which directly stimulates brain development. Would the parent commit to offering a structured home environment that incorporates learning into everyday activities to support their child’s development? If the answer is no, I would recommend the support of professional educators.

How can my 2-6 years old benefit from online or remote learning? Children learn from watching videos online, TV, listening to radio, playing games etc. These are all forms of remote learning. Parents are often surprised when their child repeats something s/he heard on TV or radio with clarity. There in is proof of the result of remote learning for children in this age group. Children do benefit from remote learning.

Remote learning or online school may not be for everyone as it requires total commitment on the part of the parent. Parent must aim to participate in the activities on offer so as to garner the full benefit from it. It can also offer parents support to establish a learning environment at home and be in a position to adequately take on the job of co-teacher.

What then should remote learning, online school look like for a 2-6 years old? What is most important is that the child’s remote learning is structured and tailored to their current level of development. Daily schedules should include movement, early literacy, early numeracy and general knowledge activities. Every activity should be underpinned with the philosophy that children this age need to interact with their environment and manipulate materials. The activities should encourage and support the development of skills required for the child’s age group with minimal screen time. Screen time should not extend beyond the one hour a day recommended in the WHO guidelines for physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children five years and under, released in 2019. This remote learning could be disseminated through TV, radio, internet, learning management systems, via WhatsApp, classroom apps etc.

Some may ask, why bother? As a proponent of good quality early childhood education, and a preacher of the value of supporting the learning and development of the child as the brain is developing rapidly between birth and six years old, I will advise that you neither neglect your child’s early years education nor leave it to chance. Parents need to be deliberate about the early years. Brain scientists have told us that the neurons in the brain need to be exercised during the early years so it develops the right connections, as later may be too late.

I would like to add here that parents that engage their nursery age children with TV shows, online learning videos and activity websites without any structure or professional support should be aware that most of these have no filters. A lot of the videos posted online are not checked for their effectiveness in supporting the learning and development of children. Some are actually detrimental to the child’s overall wellbeing. There is also the danger of prolonged screen time. What is important is that you ensure your child learning continues undisturbed. Also, whatever direction you choose to take your child’s learning, seek the advice of qualified early childhood professionals.

In conclusion, children 2-6 years old, need an organised and purposeful environment to support their learning and development. Quality education is every child’s right and is also in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4. The value of early years education should not be underestimated or underrated. We must as a nation continue to invest in early childhood education in every form. This is the only way to bring an improvement in every child’s overall performance nationwide.

Awobo-Pearse has been teaching in early years for 15 years and is a CPD certified teacher trainer