There can be no doubt that the early years in education are the most important ones, as they lay the foundation for all future learning. Therefore, it is encouraging that the Department of Basic Education has taken over the crucial Early Childhood Development portfolio from the Department of Social Development, an education expert says, while calling for a greater focus on and investment in these life-shaping years both in public and private institutions.
“Research is clear that early childhood development (ECD) drives success in school and life,” says Desiree Hugo, academic head: Schools Division at ADvTECH, Africa’s leading private education provider.
“Raising the profile of this stage of learning in all schools must – where it is not yet the case – become a priority alongside the effective management of the transition between the home environment to a school environment.”
According to Professor James J. Heckman*, Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at The University of Chicago, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, and an expert in the economics of human development, early childhood represents a critical time to shape productivity, when the brain develops rapidly to build the foundation of cognitive and character skills necessary for success in school, health, career and life. Early childhood education fosters cognitive skills along with attentiveness, motivation, self-control and sociability – the character skills that turn knowledge into know-how and people into productive citizens.
“As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. This is equally true where ECD is concerned. You don’t get an opportunity to go back and change the outcomes arising from these formative years,” says Hugo.
“This is why for us in South Africa, we must endeavour to ensure that the early years learning environments our children experience are nurturing, supportive and inclusive. And the pedagogy must be reflected in the richness of the learning environment by offering aesthetically pleasing and ergonomically designed learning spaces.”
Hugo says an effective learning environment can be compared to an ecosystem where many elements – spaces (indoors and outdoors), resources, routines, teachers and families – are intertwined and support the student’s incremental growth and personal learning journey.
“The pedagogical focus in the early years must be on building academic confidence so that students develop a love of learning, and are prepared to enter future learning opportunities and ultimately the world of work with the skillset and knowledge that will ensure that they are adaptive and can successfully respond and contribute to their immediate and extended communities in a positive manner.”
When students feel safe, they will be open to learning. Therefore, the environment becomes incredibly important as the third teacher – it creates that safe space – building strong relationships and making important connections with the essential learning elements.
Hugo adds, “Students in the early years also learn best when the learning is presented through play and where they are given the opportunity to explore, discover and make necessary connections – where they can discover that there are many ways, possibilities and perspectives, and that mistakes are necessary and accepted as part of the learning process – thus building resilience.
“In such circumstances, the environment must be responsive to their needs. Here the educator, through careful observations and interactions, is required to monitor each student’s growth and tailor experiences accordingly, thus ensuring that the students remain engaged and inspired.”
With changing times in all industries comes the need to reflect and reassess, and education is not exempt from this.
“As forward-thinking, innovative organisations – whether our schools are situated in the private sector or public sector – we need to constantly reflect and take a good look at what we are doing, how we are doing it, and how we need to change. We need to listen carefully to our learning community and reimagine our spaces.
“We will be best positioned to serve the next generation by ensuring their early years learning is based on well-researched philosophy, international connections, intentional use of resources and materials and its adaptiveness, with teaching and learning taking place in both a guided and incidental manner and that the student takes priority,” Hugo concludes.