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Early Childhood Development, the Importance of Play and the Role of the Educator

Posted on March 29, 2020 by Verni Mumford

Children are already learning at birth; they develop and learn at a rapid pace in their early years. This provides a critical foundation for life-long progress. The adults or educators that provide the care and education of children from birth through to age 5, bear a great responsibility for their health, development and learning.

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning.” Mrs Rogers

Why are the early years so crucial for a child and why is childhood learning seen as more important than learning later on in life?

The importance of early childhood development should not be underestimated. It may seem that learning starts when children begin formal schooling, however, it starts right from birth. That’s why it is important to create a healthy learning environment for your child to grow and learn in. The first years of life shapes a child’s future into adulthood. This is when the most significant brain development happens, particularly in the first two years of life.

Before your child goes to school, majority of their learning takes place in the home. While you are not formally teaching Math, Science or Language Arts like a formal school, you are putting foundational skills for these concepts and you are teaching them many important life skills. Lack of play and communication, known as “under-stimulation”, can have long-term negative consequences on a child’s learning, physical and mental health. Roughly 80% of the brain development is completed by age three and 90% by age five. This means a child cannot wait for Primary School for learning to begin. However, in poor families, where parents may work long hours and are struggling just to feed their families, access to appropriate toys and the ability to make time for play can be limited. It is therefore crucial to recognise the role that play has in early childhood development.

There has been solid evidence supporting that children learn more during their first six years of life than they do at any other point in their lives. After the first six years, the learning rate decreases. You are basically laying the foundation for how your child will learn and achieve in school in the later years as well as their overall life. These first six years of a child’s life is when the brain is developing the most. Neurons are developing more rapidly than at any other point in their life. This is the reason why children can learn so many languages at this young age, but adults have a much more difficult time.

Whatever a child learns during the first years of their life will have a lasting effect on them. Therefore, sometimes, in extreme and harmful environments, a child may continue to have difficulties in their adult life. They learn, through therapy, that their problems relate back to childhood experiences. These first years have such a big impact, that you would need to lay a solid foundation full of love, support and happiness. It is crucial for their future life and relationships.

Play is an important part of a child’s early development. Playing helps young children’s brains to develop and for their language and communication skills to mature. Simple games like peek-a-boo, shaking a rattle or singing a song has more importance than just a way to pass the time. They teach young children about communication, develop their motor skills and help with problem-solving. Something as easy as stacking and knocking over blocks allows toddlers to discover Mathematical and Scientific concepts, including shapes, gravity, balance and counting. These early childhood games are vital to laying the foundations for formal education.

In most cases learning starts with parents, caregivers or educators that will be engaging with, playing and responding to the young child. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates.

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” (Mr Rogers)

Let them play!

  • “Child-led play reduces childhood stress and anxiety.” Anxiety disorders affect 1 in 8 children.
  • “Develops social-emotional skills.” A child’s first five years are crucial for social-emotional development.
  • “Increases fine and gross motor skills.” Teachers and Occupational Therapists report an increase in childhood clumsiness.
  • “Encourages cooperation with peers.”  Increased screen time can cause social problems for children.
  • “Builds self -esteem.” The average 2-year old hears 432 negative statements each day.
  • “Outdoor free play helps sensory system.” American children spend about 4 hours each week.

“PLAY disarms fear, builds connectedness, teaches social skills and teaches competencies for life” (Dr Karyn Purvis)

Five Things to Know About Play

  1. Children learn through play. Children learn and develop cognitive skills, physical abilities, new vocabulary, social skills and literacy skills.
  2. Play is healthy. Play helps children grow and counteracts obesity issues facing many children today.
  3. Play reduces stress. Play is joyful and provides an outlet for anxiety and stress.
  4. Play is more than what meets the eye. Play is simple and complex. There are many types of play e.g. symbolic, sociodramatic, functional and games with rules.
  5. Play and learning go hand-in-hand. They are not separate activities. They are intertwined. Think about them as a science lecture with a lab. “Play is the child’s lab.”

“The greatest gifts we can give our children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.” (Maria Montessori)

What is the role of the Educator in Early Child Development or Education?

First and foremost, the role of the Early Childhood Educators is to teach and care. Teaching young children requires that teachers function in a variety of roles to meet the educational needs of the children in their classrooms. A major function is decision-making. They make decisions to organize instruction, manage learning and plan instructional strategies to design early childhood education. The approach taken is to build a child’s strong emotional, social, physical and mental development, which will prepare them for a lifetime. Early childhood educators are trained in identifying areas where support is needed for each child and building programs and activities around these.

The primary role of a teacher is to deliver classroom instruction that helps students to learn.

To accomplish this, the teacher must prepare effective lessons, grade student’s work and offer feedback, manage classroom materials and productively navigate the curriculum.

There is considerable evidence among those who work with child development and early education of what 4 -year olds gain from being in a high quality, early learning setting. In fact, the years from birth to age 5 are viewed as a critical period of developing the foundations for thinking, behaving, and emotional well-being. Child development experts show that it is during these early years that children develop linguistic, cognitive, social, emotional and regulatory abilities that project their performance in many areas. However, it has been suggested that children who are economically disadvantaged have limited readiness for school activities in quantitative and qualitative ways.

The goal of early childhood education should be to activate the child’s own natural desire to learn.” (Maria Montessori)

People have long debated whether “nature” or “nurture” plays the stronger role in early childhood development. Recent studies reveal the importance of how the two influence each other as a child develops: what a child experiences and is exposed to interacts with, affects his and her underlying biological makeup. Learning and development for children are both rapid and cumulative, continuously laying a foundation for after learning. Research has shown a strong correlation between early childhood development and how successful that child will be in the future.

Just like with every other aspect of life, early childhood development involves personality. When they are born, each experience they have develops their personality in some shape or form.

When you praise your child, make sure to compliment their efforts, instead of their personality. Instead of saying, “You are smart” say, “I saw how hard you worked on that.” This will help them see themselves in the most positive light and develop stronger personalities.

As a parent, your relationship with your child will be their first experience of a relationship. If they start school or preschool later on, your relationship may be one of just a few in their early years. A child’s brain is like a sponge. They absolutely love to learn at such a young age. They are curious about anything and everything. What your child learns during the first few years of their life will make a huge impact on their future.

Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves. Jean Piaget