Putting the Early in Early Childhood Education

John Noble

How early is too early for early childhood education?

I’ll let you in on a secret—it’s a trick question. Because, as the saying goes, we are born learning! This common cliché is backed up by new scientific evidence emerging on what feels like a weekly basis demonstrating the incredible capacity of a baby’s brain.

For example, we now know that far before they can even make coherent sounds, a baby has already mastered the basic building blocks of language and has begun to develop a vocabulary of recognized words. Babies start learning before they emerge into the world. Once born, the most important (and energy intensive) activity of their first five- to six-years of life is to build the tool that will enable them to spend the rest of their lives learning: their brans!

While I had always understood that babies were busy doing something, this image really clarified what that something was and how important it was.

Early childhood development involves changes in the brain's architecture.

And, more importantly for an architect, the extent to which this growth is impacted and influenced by the child’s environment. In the first few years of life a baby’s brain develops over 1,000 neuronal connections per second, building an inconceivably dense network.

As they move into the next phase of development, the baby’s brain begins to prune its neural pathways, reinforcing positive connections and deleting unproductive ones. This creates a rich and artfully crafted three-dimensional sculpture for thinking. It’s important to recognize the 3D nature of this work because it is not imaginary or made of pure energy: it is a solid, palpable (and visible) structure that can be observed and measured using magnetic resonance imaging.

The role of the environment on early childhood development

To take it a step further, extensive research has been done to identify which environmental factors help the most in brain development in the important first six years of life. The results make sense intuitively but underscore the importance of the right environment early—very early—for building a solid foundation.

Environmental characteristics and circumstances shown to help promote positive development include:

  • Broad exposure to communication and languages
  • Encouragement to try new things
  • Experience of nature through all senses
  • Activity: using both large and small muscle groups
  • Positive role models demonstrating emotional and impulse control

Factors that are shown to negatively impact positive development include:

  • Isolation
  • Frequent, prolonged sedentary periods (including too much television viewing)
  • Lack of verbal interactions
  • Limited contact with the outside world and nature

Furthermore, babies exposed to actively negative environments—scary, angry, painfully noisy, traumatic—develop fewer connections and then prune the ones they have in a haphazard, destructive manner, deleting positive pathways along with negative ones. In short, they build tools that are less capable of doing the work required to be in the world.

Clearly, the stakes are high and have an impact on just how (if ever) early is too early to begin sending kids and toddlers to school.

I remember sitting on the periphery of a conversation between a couple of people who were discussing the value of sending children to preschool at the age of three. They both had doubts as to whether it was a good idea and they summed it up best when one of them said, “I think kids spend too much time sitting in desks as it is. I think it’s crazy to make them start even earlier…”

And I have to say framed like that—where a three-year-old would be sent to school only to be placed in a desk—I would have to agree with the sentiment I overheard.

Early childhood education involves experimentation through play

Young children learn by doing, by being in the world. It has been said that play is a child’s scientific method. When a three-year-old spins around and around until he drops in a heap, only to get up and do it again, he is studying the effects of centripetal acceleration on the fluid distribution of his body. When a one-year-old drops her spoon over and over again until you finally tie a string to it and let her pull it up herself, she is internalizing Newton’s laws as they apply to the force of gravity, testing the hypothesis for repeatability. This is a very active, test-and-repeat method for learning that requires the space and tools for interactions. 

Children who attend a high-quality early childhood school are more prepared and do better over the course of their LIFETIMES than those who do not.

The act of pruning pathways is an active one and sitting in a line of chairs practicing letter shapes is not the best way to create a better brain.

The good news is that sitting in chairs is not what goes on in a high-quality early childhood learning environment. Instead, these spaces will work to create all of the above conditions mentioned for creating great brains. That is the primary mission of the expert teachers who facilitate the learning of our youngest citizens. And there is considerable evidence that they are doing it right.

While it is absolutely the case that a loving, aware and intentional parent or caregiver can raise a bright, successful child, the research is clear that children who attend a high-quality early childhood school are more prepared and do better over the course of their LIFETIMES than those who do not. In fact, in multiple studies over the last three decades, Professor James Heckman has developed an equation that attempts to quantify the return on investment of dollars spent on early childhood education and he finds that ROI to be as high as 13% per annum over the course a person’s life. This return is based on negative measures like rates of arrest, recidivism, incarceration, drug addiction as well as more positive hard numbers like compensation rates and lifetime earnings. They seem to suggest that the soft skills learned from interactions with one’s peers at the earliest stages—emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, methods of self-control—are some of the most important indicators for future success.

This all supports the answer to the original question that it is never too early to learn. But perhaps the more salient answer is, while learning can take place anywhere, there is tremendous value to spending at least some of one’s early life in a structured learning environment created and maintained by professionals skilled in the art of facilitating learning, in short, in an early childhood school.

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