Education around the world is characterized by various curricula that are competing within very different cultural approaches. It is incredibly diverse sector whose evolutions are largely influenced by nations’ demographics and needs. Education is serious business, however, there’s a growing trend of research sharing compelling reasons for education to start taking the PLAY component seriously, in order to avoid missing out on the experiential aspect that could be considered distracting to many, but is actually enriching and complementary. It is essential to try and embed this new approach within the historic practices from the earliest stages of education.
Let’s clear a few misconceptions about early childhood development
Here is a reality every new parent should know: the first years of a child’s life set the foundations for their entire future growth.
Firstly, early learning is not ineffective. Even though babies have very limited abilities visible to the eye, brain development is fastest during the first years and is directly connected to the child’s physical development. A baby’s brain forms over 1 million new connections every second, a pace that is never repeated again during its lifetime, and over 80% of the brain is formed by the age of 3. The more we stimulate children, the faster they will discover, react and get familiar with their body while developing their senses.
A second important misconception concerns language. Language is one of the greatest gifts we give our children. It is a critical part of any child’s development as it supports their ability to communicate, and express and understand feelings. This is why partners should talk to their children as well as encourage a two-way communication even in the early years. Parents should also avoid dumbing down their conversations with their children, and instead speak in full and vocabulary-rich sentences. Babies start listening before they are even born; they start hearing sound at 18 weeks of pregnancy, responding to noise or voices at 25-26 weeks, and can even recognize their mother’s voice in the third quarter. They take at least a year before speaking, but the exposure to their mother’s voice and the environment around them makes them understand the structure of languages much earlier. This is why parents should speak to their young children in a simple, but intelligible and structured way.
The third important misconception is financial. While the cost of early childhood care might seem expensive, we should realize the extent of services, amenities and labor that are permanently required to guarantee that young children can be safely taken care of away from their home. Facilities must be able to handle most situations, which is the least we should accept. While we should be reasonable in our expectations, we would reach greater acceptance by considering early childhood care as an investment for the future and not a temporary expense.
What is the biggest misunderstanding?
The biggest misunderstanding relates to children’s single need for entertainment until they are old enough to engage in more meaningful activities. Leveling down our expectations means we limit their ability to rise to challenges and risk affecting their potential in the longer term.
The truth is they are hungry for meaningful activities from as early as they can understand their surrounding environment, and we can only help them get there faster by nurturing their appetite for learning in an entertaining way. In this part of the world, large extended families used to live under the same roof, and with family being the key social unit in Arab culture, early childhood education was never really considered an option. Children used to stay at home and spend time with their numerous siblings and family relatives until they reached the age of going to school.
Also, with the subsequent lifestyle improvements for UAE nationals, families have also tended to rely on foreign workers to take care of their homes and children. Unfortunately, caregivers are often under-educated, which prevents adequate communication and stimulation opportunities for children.
Thankfully, things are changing with the modernization of Arab society and increasing exposure to the benefits of early childhood education on children’s long-term development. The new generation of parents, with higher independence from their extended family and working longer hours, is more accepting about leaving their children with early childhood development professionals from an early age.
The way forward – ‘Learn through Play’
Play has a crucial and often underestimated role in early childhood development.
But as American author Diana Ackerman famously said: “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” It is indeed one of the most effective ways for children to learn and develop, as it helps build self-worth by giving children a sense of their abilities, and because it is fun, children are very absorbed and receptive.
First and foremost, parents should spend time with their children and keep them engaged through mutual communication. Children should be heard as much as they should listen; so we can teach them how to behave and understand the world, and they can learn how to express themselves and interact with others. We also need to keep them reasonably challenged to instill and encourage resilience and perseverance, which are both vital skills in life.
Children should be exposed to all aspects of play at schools, as physical fitness is now considered as important as mental fitness in their development. Schools should ideally propose a variety of play areas. Outdoor areas give children the freedom to play and an opportunity to exercise by making the most out of their physical ability. Imaginary play areas allow them to tap into their creativity and curiosity, helping develop children’s imagination and sharpening their ability to conceptualize solutions. Play-based learning areas, articulated around the idea that “everything needs purpose”, proposes constructive activities such as play dough and clay, skeletons of the human body, building blocks and other counting activities that support mathematical progress.
Almost as important, parents should leave academics to school teachers. Children will learn at their own pace, and we must trust schools to handle their learning curve in an appropriate and timely manner. When at home, young children require quality time with their family. This is why it is critical to educate parents and caregivers about the importance of play-based learning for young children and give them ideas about how to work with what they have instead of replicating the school environment, so children have different expectations at home and can benefit from them.
It is important for parents to promote gross motor skills and exercising beyond their child’s capability. If they don’t allow their children to take risks and step out of their comfort zone, they will not progress as fast and learn how to deal with real problems. These activities can be direct physical exercise such as climbing, running, cycling or swimming, or indirect exercise such as cleaning windows, tidying up or moving objects around the house, which are less fun but have a greater purpose.
Most importantly, we must remember not to over-stimulate children. Alone time and allowing them to experience boredom are as crucial to their development, as they promote awareness, observation and encourage a spirit of independence and self-consciousness.
Children are our future. Let’s spend quality time with them, talk with them, play with them and teach them important life lessons, so they can become the kind, generous and responsible citizens the world deserves.