3. Components of quality early childhood education

As documented throughout this report, early childhood programs offer multiple social and economic benefits. For children and families, they are very personal places. Parents long for environments where their children are nurtured with real affection, receive individualized attention and are appreciated for their uniqueness. They want their children to make friends, to have new experiences and to learn new skills. They want a relationship with their children’s educators that is welcoming, respectful and reciprocal.

When you walk inside a high-quality early childhood centre, it looks and smells good. It is bright, airy, organized and clean. Knowing that it is never too early to make children aware of their relationship to the world, centres are environmentally responsible models of reduce, reuse and recycle. Flora and fauna are major players. There is a variety of play materials for children to put together and take apart. There are quiet corners with storybooks and soft seating to cuddle up on. Knowledgeable and responsive educators encourage language use, both spoken and visual, to show literacy in daily living and to enrich exploration and expand problem solving. Immersion in these environments boosts early learning.24

Quality early childhood programs have common principles, approaches and tools that guide practice. There is recognition that children’s earliest experiences matter deeply, laying the foundation for lifelong learning, behaviour and health. Families and communities are viewed as partners who strengthen the program’s ability to meet the needs of young children. Respect for diversity, equity and inclusion are acknowledged as essential for optimal development. Research also shows that a planned curriculum, anchored by play, best capitalizes on children’s natural curiosity and exuberance to learn.

A sound curriculum guides early learning environments for children from infancy through to the early primary grades, when children transition to more analytical thinking. It influences not only the content but the design of the early learning environment, including appropriate lighting, furniture, equipment, materials, storage, food preparation and hygiene facilities, ensuring the space is inviting to children, families and staff. It directs educators in the scheduling of routines and activities, the organization of indoor and outdoor space and the adaption of space and activities to include children with special needs. Early childhood educators (ECEs) use the curriculum to guide their expectations of the children and to help document their own and the children’s progress. The curriculum is not only for front-line ECEs; it also informs directors, school principals, senior administrators and other decision makers how to allocate resources and set policies in tune with the developmental needs of young children.

Curricula is not static. It is intended to respond to new knowledge and the changing circumstances of children, their families and communities. Good curricula address the whole child and is often organized into broad categories with learning expectations for each: physical, social, emotional, communication/ language and cognitive. This supports educators in observing the children and adapting activities accordingly. The curricula serve additional purposes, including promoting an even level of quality across programs and facilitating communication between parents and staff.

Researchers have found that the quality of the curriculum and pedagogy offered to children is more important than a specific curriculum and pedagogical approach, with two general exceptions. Young children do not show long-term gains from a scripted curriculum dominated by direct instruction and a focus on specific academic achievements related to literacy and numeracy.25 This approach is sometimes referred to as the “schoolification” of early childhood education.26 On the other hand, loosely-structured programs that promote childdirected play without the involvement or active support of educators typically result in chaos.27

Figure 3.3

Early learning frameworks in place in several provinces tend towards a child-directed approach, while curricula for school kindergarten programs tend towards adult-guided approaches. In one study of curriculum approaches used in the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, a teacherdirected approach to acquiring basic skills did promote early literacy skills and made the transition to kindergarten easier.28 However, longer-term child outcomes, especially high school completion, were attributed to environments with child-initiated activity—engagement based on social learning and learning how to learn.

The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project in England and Wales offers strong evidence that a well-planned curriculum and pedagogy with specific learning goals, delivered by responsive educators, improves children’s intellectual and social/behavioural development. Children made more progress in centres where cognitive and social goals were complementary and viewed as equally important. In centres rated as excellent, educators and children engaged in more sustained shared thinking. Educators intentionally extended children’s thinking by working together to solve a problem, clarify a concept, expand a narrative or explore a question. The beneficial effects of preschool remained evident through the initial years of primary school.29

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