Early years education is more than child’s play

This article was first published at Essential Kids.

Recently I discovered that in some states, early childhood educators with a four-year education degree are not even recognised as teachers.

Not only is this incorrect, it is disrespectful. How can it be?

This perception seems to rest on the notion that taking care of young children is not as challenging, important or worthwhile as taking care of primary or secondary aged children.

Underneath this is the idea that not much is happening with little kids. How wrong these perceptions are!

Serious brain development

For a long time, research has emphasised the incredible importance of the first years of life in terms of the rapid growth and development that happens on all levels for every child.

Let’s start with the fact that 90 per cent of brain growth occurs in those first five years.

Our basic brain architecture is built up through repeated experiences, which gradually build the connectors between brain cells or neurons.

Without movement, activity and experiences this vital brain growth simply does not occur as easily or effectively as it’s meant to.

Parents and educators need time and energy to be able to create an environment in which these things can occur effectively.

This early development lays down the building blocks for educational achievement, emotional and social competence, lifelong health, mental stability – and it creates the pathways to living a worthwhile life as a human being.

Meaningful interactions matter for life

One thing that may just look like child’s play to those who do not understand brain development is the need for babies and toddlers to be engaged often in a “serve and return” interaction with grown-ups.

Modelling is an extremely powerful way for children to learn and they do this through their facial expressions, babbling and copying the words grown-ups use, and through copying gestures and body movements.

For this to occur in a healthy way they need to interact with grown-ups as often as possible in a meaningful way.

Exceptional early years educators are trained to do this. This is an important part of intentional teaching in the early childhood sector – often seen as just ‘playing with children’. The purpose is incredibly important, and the benefits are life-long.

Essentially we learn to become a human in the first five years of life and we can only learn that by being marinated in warm, safe, caring and consistent human relationships with the grown-ups who surround us.

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The crucial role of “big people”

Much has been written about the importance of attachment in the early years of life.

Primary attachments are the ‘big people’ of central importance to a child’s life — typically parents and key caregivers.

It is helpful for parents of babies and toddlers to have a circle of caring adults who can share the raising of children.

This allows for support, guidance and respite, which helps every parent, especially tired mummies, cope with this intensive time of life.

For children who are in long-day child care, the early years’ educators who form a loving, caring connection with children are technically a source of primary attachment, often called secondary attachment figures.

Safe, predictable and caring relationships are important for everyone however especially important for young children. The safer a child feels whereever they are being cared for, the more energy the child will have to become adventuresome, braver and happier.

The National Quality Framework (NQF) that guides the early childhood education sector has a strong emphasis on ensuring every child feels they belong and that they are cared for in their early childhood settings.

This is a high priority. This is not left to chance.

In some early childhood settings there can to be up to 15 different cultures and exceptional early years educators need to ensure all children and families feel valued, accepted and respected.

The NQF is a framework that embraces the whole child – not just the brain on a seat – and this holistic approach is something experienced, exceptional early years educators are incredibly passionate about.

They know how to assess and identify gaps or vulnerabilities in every child and what to do to help.

For this they deserve more understanding of the important work they do and, frankly, more respect.

Lastly these-hard working educators who often work long days and have few holidays deserve to be paid more. No question. Their pay needs to reflect education and experience like most other professions (and parents shouldn’t have to foot the bill).

There are thousands of families in Australia, the UK, New Zealand, the US and Canada who are incredibly grateful for the exceptional early years educators who care for their children.

So let’s show some gratitude and acknowledge quite simply that exceptional early childhood educators deserve more.