Sun, 15 Jun 2003

Early childhood education key to success

Simon Marcus Gower, Contributor, Jakarta

As with many other areas of Indonesia's school system, the area of pre-school provision is mostly at an early stage of development. But more attention needs to be given and importance attached to helping little children along the path to beginning their formal schooling.

Pre-schools and playgroups have become more available but there is danger that these end-up grouped baby-sitting sessions rather structured and constructive in beginning little children's educational encounters.

There is clear scientific evidence to support the value of planned and managed pre-school programs. In the United Kingdom researchers have compared the performance of children that experienced playgroups with those that did not.

What they found is perhaps surprising but is a clear recommendation for pre-school provision. Children that did not attend some pre-school activity were found to get lower scores across most of their efforts. This included lower scores for language development, general intelligence, listening skills, mathematical understanding and reading ability.

The researchers found that children that had participated in a pre-school program were better able to organize and structure their thinking and achieve greater success.

Previously some had poured cold water on the benefits of pre- school. They suggested there was insufficient scientific proof of the value of pre-schooling and notions of its value were cast aside and even dismissed as "fuzzy science".

It was suggested that social scientists and psychiatrists were allowing conjecture and opinions to lead them, but times have changed and so have views on the value of well thought out pre- school planning. Less "fuzzy" fields of research have been applied to education. This has allowed people to recognize that pre-schooling is valuable. Brain research has examined the nature and importance to learning of the process of interaction with other people.

Academic skills emerge from the positive interactions that a child has. By engaging the child in positive interactions, learning is being fostered. Naturally the child will imitate, identify with and internalize the ways, actions and examples of those around it. Early interactions with people become important because they help to make sense of the world. Early (pre-school) learning can include development across a range of skills, which in turn can smooth the path towards academic development.

For example, each of the following can be developed through pre-school activity: Physical development will be helped, social and interactive skills will benefit, psycho-emotional skills will be enhanced, ethical behavior may be introduced, linguistic skills can be increased and intellectual and cognitive ability can be stimulated.

Good early learning experiences will help to equip the child with the skills needed to easily start early school years. But these good 'early learning experiences' have to be properly managed. Educators have developed understanding of the value of play. To adults the idea of play is not one associated with learning. Generally, adults connect words such as relaxation, pastimes and hobbies to the word play but for little children play is a way of learning.

In pre-school groups, play must be constructively incorporated. They will play to interact with the world. Play to express their feelings and understanding of things. Play to mix with children and play to discover their abilities.

But this play should be well structured by the organizers of the playgroup. A good playgroup might have a variety of both indoor and outdoor toys for the children to play on and discover what they can do. But a good playgroup is not merely about the quantity of toys it has, it is more about the quality of the people that supervise the children.

This means that playgroup staff need to be trained in how to maximize the play - and so by definition learning for the children. It is an often-repeated misconception that teaching little children is easiest. It can prove the most demanding of educational challenges. Also, it is not sufficient for people to say that they love little children; they must be able to balance love with knowledge of what to do with children in a playgroup setting.

Take the example of one Jakarta-based playgroup. Although well equipped with indoor and outdoor facilities much of the learning opportunities that these facilities presented were lost because the staff members were not well trained to stimulate the children's responses.

Arguments and even fights would breakout because of poor supervision. The children were not learning the most basic of lessons of 'turn-taking'. They were allowed too much freedom and almost inevitably squabbles would breakout.

With supervision and a structured pre-school provision those children could have been learning in such a way that allowed them to develop social and interactive skills, ethical knowledge, self-awareness and even linguistic development in knowing when to ask permission from or give acceptance to a peer.

This is one example of how planned interactions at pre-school can help begin learning. Obviously there are no complete guarantees and a child's education is significantly dependent upon on-going good learning experiences and guidance through school but the value of pre-school learning cannot be overstated. The development of a child is influenced by early experiences. Future development builds upon the past and so placing positive learning early in a child's life may be hugely beneficial. A good education should be a positive life experience that empowers students.

The writer is Director of Research and Development, Harapan Bangsa School, Kotamodern, Tangerang, Banten.