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What is the purpose of early childhood education? Why it's so important

what is the purpose of early childhood education

If you’re like most adults, you didn’t spend much time thinking about early childhood education (ECE) until you or a loved one had a child. You may have fond memories of your preschool days but can’t recall much besides taking turns in games, singing songs, getting dirty outside, making friends and napping on the floor.

It’s tempting to think of these activities as merely ways to keep kids occupied, but educators know the truth: Young children learn best through play, and starting early sets them up for success in life and school. In fact, children start learning from their parents and environment in utero, according to Dr. Hawani Negussie, assistant professor of early childhood education at University of Massachusetts Global.

We enlisted Dr. Negussie’s ECE expertise to help answer some important questions, like “What is the purpose of early childhood education?” and “Why is early childhood education so important?” Keep reading for an insightful introduction to this meaningful field.

What is early childhood education?

Early childhood education is a term to describe formal and informal educational programs that guide the growth and development of children throughout their preschool years (birth to age five). Children at these ages are entirely dependent on their adult caregivers, including parents, daycare providers, babysitters, extended family members and teachers.

ECE encompasses a wide variety of activities designed to promote children's cognitive and social development before entering kindergarten. Some programs primarily focus on school and academic readiness while others embrace a “whole child” approach that emphasizes mental and emotional preparedness.

One challenge that ECE educators face is the fact that their work is often dismissed or devalued as “simply playtime.” This could not be farther from the truth, according to Dr. Negussie.

“This misconception around what ECE teachers do is very common,” she shares. “Often, stakeholders, like parents, community members and even other educators, have the attitude that whatever happens in preschool doesn’t matter because learning only begins once they enter kindergarten.”

Young children have incredibly impressionable and elastic minds that are constantly soaking up information from their surroundings and learning from interactions and experiences. They are born to learn and hardwired to perceive, imitate, experiment and explore.

What is the purpose of early childhood education?

Simply put, the purpose of ECE is to provide children with strategies that help them develop the emotional, social and cognitive skills needed to become lifelong learners. The Zero to Three Foundation considers the following skills to be the most important for young learners to master:

  1. Language and literacy: Language provides the foundation for the development of literacy skills. Learning to communicate through gestures, sounds and words increases a child’s interest in — and later understanding of — books and reading.
  2. Thinking: Children are born with a need to understand how things work. In their everyday experiences, they use and develop an understanding of math concepts, such as counting and sorting, and problem-solving skills that they will need for school.
  3. Self-control: This refers to the ability to express and manage emotions in appropriate ways and is essential for success in school and healthy development overall. It enables children to cooperate with others, cope with frustration and resolve conflicts.
  4. Self-confidence: When children feel competent and believe in themselves, they are more willing to take on new challenges. Self-confidence is also crucial for navigating social challenges, such as sharing, competition and making friends.

The fact that all of these skills can be developed without homework or tests is still difficult for some adults to believe. “There are always parents who don’t understand that children learn best when they have the option to do so in a manner that is pleasurable,” Dr. Negussie explains.

 

Making something fun helps them absorb the lesson. Play really is everything to kids.

ECE curriculums are set up to encourage young students to learn about themselves and the world via experiences. This could include indoor or outdoor play, cooperative or individual play, domestic play, sensory play and constructive play, to name just a few types.

Why is early childhood education important?

A newborn baby’s brain is about a quarter of the size of an adult brain. Incredibly, it will double in size by the child’s first birthday and will have completed 90 percent of its growth by age five. During the early childhood years, the brain is making millions of synapses every second. These neural connections allow us to move, think, communicate and comprehend the world around us. To say that this is a critical window of development is an understatement.

There is a large body of research that suggests a high-quality ECE program can have a positive long-term effect on the lives of children. The National Education Association (NEA) states that research shows children who receive a high-quality education before they turn five enjoy significant medium- and long-term benefits. Children in early childhood education programs are:

  • Less likely to repeat a grade
  • Less likely to be identified as having special needs
  • More prepared academically for later grades
  • More likely to graduate from high school
  • More likely to be higher earners in the workforce

“We have a lot of scientific data about brain development at this age, but there is a huge gap between figuring out what young brains need to thrive and actually making policies or funding programs based on that information,” Dr. Negussie shares.

She wishes that more people would understand that children have an impact on everyone — not just parents. “We forget that kids grow up and become leaders and decision-makers,” she poses. “ECE should be at the forefront of political, social, state and federal discussions because every single child deserves a high-quality education, regardless of race, ethnicity or class.”

What does a high-quality ECE program look like?

A good early childhood education program is dynamic, challenging, enriching and carefully planned. A typical ECE curriculum might incorporate songs, books, art, games, toys, experiences and nature exploration into the daily lesson plans for a class or group.

According to the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), the most important elements of a quality ECE program include:

  • Sufficient learning time and small class sizes with low student-teacher ratios
  • Well-prepared teachers who provide engaging interactions and classroom environments that support learning
  • Research-based, developmentally appropriate early learning standards and curricula
  • Assessments that consider children’s academic, social-emotional and physical progress
  • Ongoing support for teachers, including coaching and mentoring
  • Meaningful family engagement

Dr. Negussie adds that for any ECE curriculum to be truly relevant and effective, it should be informed by the child’s culture. “Children come to the classroom with background knowledge that is saturated in their particular culture,” she explains. “Teachers shouldn’t think of it as a foreign, exotic thing that we don’t touch. Traditions, routines, communication styles — these are all steeped in culture.”

Help shape success for the next generation

Now that you understand the purpose of early childhood education and why it’s so important, you may feel a calling to build a career in this impactful field. Find out if you have what it takes in our article “Signs you should consider pursuing an early childhood education career.”

You’ll eventually need a degree to make your mark as an ECE professional. Learn more about University of Massachusetts Global’s flexible, affordable bachelor's degree in early childhood education.

 

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