The initiative begins this fall in 30 schools providing a full day of play-based learning to over 700 four-year-olds. Within four years the full cohort of over 8,900 children will be able to participate.
The announcement in last week’s budget will be welcomed by parents and educators and should be met with enthusiasm from all quarters. The decision to front-end education is based on a wide swath of research, including evidence from the eight Early Years Centres, which piloted a pre-primary program in each school district. Independent evaluations found that children who attended the program began Grade Primary with greater confidence and skills, creating a more productive learning environment for teachers and students.
The results are not surprising. Early learners make the best learners. Brains are never more receptive than in the years before children turn five when over 80 per cent of brain growth occurs. Playful, caring early education fuels growing minds and bodies. What children learn, or miss, during this period sticks. Affluent and middle class families know that the skills needed for success in school and life are established early. They fight to get their children into the best preschools they can find. Youngsters from disadvantaged homes have fewer options.
Detractors will equate universal early education with free daycare or argue that young children belong at home, not school. They would be wrong. More than one in three children in Nova Scotia begin Grade Primary with big gaps in their health, vocabulary and self-confidence. Some find it difficult to get along with their classmates and teachers. Schools can’t compensate children for poor experiences in their earliest years. Sadly the difficulties children experience at school entry are likely to grow, rather than lessen, over time. They are more likely to leave school before graduating and frequently become parents too soon to stop their own children from repeating the cycle. The good news is quality early education has been shown to break intergenerational legacies of disadvantage.
Those concerned that four is too young to sit at a desk all day need not worry. There are no desks. Each pre-primary class will be led by two early childhood educators trained to scaffold children’s learning through play. Modelled on the Early Years Centres, pre-primary classrooms are organized around sand and water tables, craft and block centres, dress-up nooks, miniature kitchens and soft places to cuddle up with a book or take a nap. In these rich settings children’s language, numeracy and creativity soar. By socializing with one another and their teachers, children learn to co-operate, listen and contribute.
Early education is tied to other important goals including improving educational outcomes, reducing illiteracy and poverty and making the province a place where young families want to come and stay.
Nova Scotians already spend more than $1.2 billion on public education from Grade Primary through 12 – $3.7-million to kick off a whole new grade at the most productive end of learning is a highly modest investment in what is the most important duty a society owes its children.
The Honourable Margaret Norrie McCain is a former Lieutenant Governor, a philanthropist and champion for universal early education.