Early-Childhood Education | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Early-Childhood Education

Early-childhood education embraces a variety of group care and education programs for young children and parents.

Early-childhood education embraces a variety of group care and education programs for young children and parents. The traditional focus on day care, nursery school and kindergarten programs has expanded recently to include attention to the needs of infants and school-aged children in primary grades, but programs designed for children in the 2-to-8 age range still outnumber those for older and younger children.

Various types of day-care and nursery programs are designed for the care and education needs of preschool children. Although different kinds of day care exist, there is increasing demand for the kind of group program associated with a centre. In schools, kindergarten and the early primary grades are considered within the purview of early-childhood education. For some Canadian children, entry to kindergarten or first grade represents the first organized early-education experience.

Although, depending on the age and experience of the children involved, programs may emphasize either the care or the education of the child at a particular time, all early-childhood education is guided by concern for the individual child and by an awareness of the need to nurture all aspects of his or her development. Early-education practice reflects the thinking of Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1829), the renowned Swiss educator whose concern for, and work with, young orphan children is generally acknowledged as being responsible for the birth of early-childhood education.

The influence of European educators, such as Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori and Margaret McMillarn, is obvious in North American and European early-childhood education. The Montessori schools in Canada are a concrete example, but the more widespread and enduring impact of these educators is reflected in classroom practices based on their beliefs about child development and their respect for a child's individuality. In the latter part of the 20th century, early-childhood education has been strongly influenced by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget's theories. Piaget's studies of children's thinking, in particular, have stimulated a wave of research exploring children's intellectual development, resulting in many innovations in early-childhood programs.

There is an ongoing controversy about what constitutes the best educational experience for the young child. Generally the goals and purposes of this experience are in less dispute than the means by which they are to be achieved. Recently parent and public demands for educational "accountability" and a return to "the 3 Rs" have included attacks on "play" approaches to teaching and learning. At issue are conflicting beliefs about when children can and should direct their own learning. For example, the extent to which the teacher, or any adult, should intervene in a child's learning is debatable, particularly when intervention takes the form of direct instruction in teacher-directed lessons.

A second, related question, concerns the desirability of prespecified learning objectives. Much of the debate concerns school programs for children in the 5-8 age range, but it has spilled over into preschool programs as well. The latter seems tied to the fact that many children spend 1-2 years in preschool before entering school.

Compensatory education for preschool children, developed principally in the US with extensive government funding, was intended to meet the needs of socially and economically disadvantaged children. Some programs designed by groups of educational researchers and developers challenged the long-standing early-childhood education emphasis on social and emotional development and emphasized intellectual development. The conflict between the more traditional and the experimental programs and the effect of these programs on the children became part of the general discussion about the means and ends of the preschool experience. This discussion, in Canada, has centered around children with special needs or "at risk" children (eg, those who because of one or more factors in their background may face some difficulties in school achievement or social adjustment, or both.)

In Canada, some of the questions related to special needs are associated with the needs of second-language learners and of children identified as having particular learning or developmental needs. Children of parents who have recently immigrated to Canada frequently enter kindergarten or first grade with little or no facility in English or French. Opinions differ regarding the best approach to developing the child's competence with the language of the school. The identification of other special needs and capabilities at the time the child enters school is the objective of the early-identification procedures adopted by many school boards. Again, there are different views regarding the best means of identifying existing and potential problems and of meeting the needs that are identified.

The early-identification movement is concerned with identifying physical, social, emotional and learning problems in preschool and early-primary children. Screening procedures have been designed for this purpose, and some follow-up in response to the identified needs of individual children is encouraged.

Perhaps the greatest influence on early-childhood education in Canada today has been the philosophy and practice of the British infant and primary schools. Frequently referred to as "informal" or "open" education, this approach is viewed by many as the embodiment of the "child-centered" philosophy. Attempts to implement "informal" education in Canada and the US have been directed, in particular, to kindergarten and primary-grade programs. In Ontario alone, almost 400 open-area schools were constructed between 1967 and 1972. Even where the open areas were not provided, water tables, "junk" boxes and other materials used in British classrooms appeared in Canadian classrooms. Multi-age grouping practised in Britain was also tried in Canada.

Other developments within the field of education and society have also influenced the scope and direction of early-childhood education. For many years the study of child development and early-education practice were dominated by the child developmentalists, who resisted direct intervention by teachers in children's learning. However, since the 1960s scholars and researchers in other disciplines and professions have turned their attention to the study of children and the early-education setting. In Canada today a number of university departments of education and psychology are engaged in research exploring the dimensions of child development and learning, and the dimensions and outcomes of early-childhood practice. The research of linguists, eg, has provided new understanding of the development of and relationship between language and thought. These findings have generated new discussions about the teacher's role in language development.

Changing ways of life and other social change have also affected early education because of changing needs and demands for child care and education. The increasing number of working women, many of whom are mothers of young children, has resulted in a demand for increased day-care facilities. In Canada this demand and the related issue of day-care funding have attracted the attention of many interest groups and policymakers, and the role of the school in providing day-care needs has become a subject of debate.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to early-childhood practitioners and researchers today is finding a way to determine whether early-childhood education achieves its objectives. Developing valid and reliable measures to assess program effectiveness, or even to define the criteria of effectiveness, has been difficult because some early-childhood educators are reluctant to support formal evaluation of program effects on children. This reluctance seems to stem from concern that any formal assessment of children promotes a kind of child evaluation that is antithetical to the notion of respecting individual differences. However, advances in research design and methodology and an awareness of the need to back up claims with evidence have combined to support a growing body of research in the field. This research increasingly demonstrates concern with long-term as well as immediate effects of early-childhood programs, and with determining relationships between different types of programs and different learning development outcomes.

Further Reading