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SCHOOLING JOURNEY OP-ED

Play it smart – good early childhood education sets kids up for a thriving life

Play it smart – good early childhood education sets kids up for a thriving life
Children who are enrolled in good early learning programmes are shown to thrive later in life. (Photo: iStock)

Early learning programmes that have the proper equipment and staff develop children’s cognitive and physical abilities, helping them succeed in primary and high school – and, ultimately, in life.

I didn’t knock on the door because it had been stolen. The young teacher warmly welcomed me to her 40-strong preschool group, who were on their knees using the chairs in front of them as desks. They were copying letters from the chalkboard into their notebooks. The grass outside was knee-high and a rusty old jungle gym served as the only playground equipment.

The August report of the Thrive by Five Index 2021 found that a staggering 65% of children attending early learning programmes in South Africa fail to thrive by five. These children are not on track for optimum cognitive and physical development.

The report notes that there are about 1.2 million children in South Africa aged 50 to 59 months, and between 45% and 55% are reported to attend some kind of early learning programme (ELP).

The Thrive by Five Index is the first in a series of surveys that will monitor trends in the proportion of four- to five-year-old children attending ELPs. This survey of preschool child outcomes was initiated by First National Bank and Innovation Edge, and provides data in three key developmental domains associated with longer-term outcomes: early learning, physical growth and social-emotional functioning.

It showed that 57% of preschoolers begin their formal schooling journey without the right basic foundations in place.

Grow, a South African NGO, observes that 1.6 million children (72%) under six are enrolled to attend an ELP. This figure was closer to two million before the Covid-19 pandemic. Grow thinks that the decline shows that parents are slow to send their children back to preschool, possibly because of financial strain (many lost their jobs), or because many parents don’t realise how crucial early education is for their child’s future success.

High Scope, an American research organisation, believes that early access to high-quality education sets children on a trajectory to success. They focus on identifying the key factors of early education practice and policy that improve outcomes for children, families and communities. High Scope’s roots go back to 1962, with the start of the landmark Perry Preschool Project in Michigan, which changed the trajectory of early education forever.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Want to raise happy children? Take a leaf out of the Dutch book

The project studied the impact of high-quality early education on 123 black children with risk factors of failing in school.

The longitudinal study found that, at age 40, the participants who experienced the preschool programme had fewer teenage pregnancies, were more likely to have graduated from high school, were more likely to hold a job and have higher earnings, and owned their own home and car.

What underpins the model? Teachers arrange the classroom and daily activities to support children’s self-initiated learning activities and provide both small- and large-group activities. They help children to participate in key experiences in child development. The teachers study and receive regular training and support in their use of the model.


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These programmes foster children’s interest in learning by creating an environment that encourages them to explore learning materials and interact with adults and peers. They focus on supporting children to make decisions, build academic skills, develop socially and emotionally, and become part of a classroom community.

Active learning is at the centre of the curriculum, and they build on natural play and interactions with the environment, events, and other people. Teachers act as partners, working alongside children and communicating with them verbally and nonverbally. Key strategies in the interactions are sharing control with children, communicating as a partner with children, scaffolding children’s play, using encouragement instead of praise and taking a problem-solving approach to supporting children in resolving conflicts.

The arrangement

To create a predictable and active learning environment, teachers arrange and equip the classroom with diverse, open-ended materials that reflect children’s homes, cultures and languages. The room is arranged and labelled to promote independence and encourage children to carry out their intentions.

Children engage in both individual and social play, take part in small- and large-group activities, help with clean-up, socialise during meals, develop self-care skills and exercise their small and large muscles.

The most important aspect of the daily routine is the plan-do-review sequence, in which children make decisions about what they will do, carry out their ideas and reflect upon their activities with adults and other children.

Natural play helps early learning. (Photo: Unsplash)

Anecdotal observations of children collected throughout children’s natural play allow teachers to assess progress and plan meaningful learning experiences.

The Thrive by Five Index report notes that “the first five years of a child’s life are the most important because that is the period when the human brain is growing fastest and is most responsive to its environment, care and opportunities for learning. During this period, not only does the brain learn best but the neurological foundations are also established for lifelong learning.”

It concludes that “there is a well-known proverb that says ‘the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now’.” We have no choice but to invest massively in early childhood programmes in South Africa. DM168

Dr Mark Potterton is principal of the Sacred Heart College primary school and director of the Three2Six Refugee Children’s Education Project.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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