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I have chosen this topic - Make the early years count - for a Viewpoint today, since I know that as parents you are about to make that critical decision about what to do with your young child. You may be plagued with doubts about whether you are doing the right thing to send your child off to a child development programme or, whether it will be better to leave your child at home with a relative who can provide all the love, care and attention that he/she requires. Another option may be to use television cassettes to provide the stimulation. Immediately I will say this is bad, it isolates the child and will greatly limit his/her development.
So let us together look at some critical issues that will help you make the right decision to send him/her to an early Childhood Development Programme and benefit from its use - Nursery School, Day Care or Play Group - come September.
Let us first of all look at some benefits to the child.
Dr B. Perry (1997) noted that experience is the chief architect of the brain and noted that children who don’t play much or who are rarely touched develop 20 per cent to 30 per cent smaller brains than normal for their age.
Before birth, changes in the child’s environment in the womb caused by the mothers’ malnutrition, drug abuse or viral infection can damage the developmental processes resulting in epilepsy, mental retardation and other negative effects on the brain. After birth, abuse and emotional neglect may also be difficult to erase in later years. A child’s brain, therefore, needs the stimulation of experiences in the environment from before birth to develop to its full capacity or potential.
Early childhood experiences result in enhanced brain and social development. Scientists have described the first eight years as providing sensitive points, like windows through which, it is possible to make critical inputs in a child’s development to shape and stabilize brain development, and create long lasting structures. In addition, unless micronutrient and protein-energy malnutrition is prevented or corrected, by age two or three, it is very difficult to reverse the damage later.
To summaries that information, it is clear that the brain needs experiences, love, touch, play, nutrients, to enable the child to develop to his/her full potential. Bob Myers (1992) notes that recent research demonstrated that we cannot ignore the environment and conditions, wherein children are born and have to live in the first years of life and which guarantee their basic human right. Parents and caregivers can be enabled to provide those experiences.
Two very important features here are the child and environment within which the child interacts to provide his/her experiences. Hendricks (1980) gives us a simple picture of the child which will help us to relate his/her developmental needs to his environment. He describes the child as comprising a number of selves, which I will now describe and relate to a programme for his/her development.
The Physical Self: This includes large and small muscle development and also deals with routines of eating, resting and toileting activities, which contribute, to the physical well-being and comfort of the child.
The Emotional Self: This looks at ways by which mental health is sustained and discipline is used to foster self control, cope with aggression and develop self-esteem in the child.
The Social Self: This is concerned with ways of developing social graces of kindness, co-operation, and learning to enjoy work and cultural appreciation of the others in his/her environment.
The Creative Self: This fosters self-expression through the use of art materials and creativity as expressed in play and applied in thought.
The Cognitive Self: The development of language and specific learning abilities, which relate to association, assimilation and accommodation of new ideas. The child will be able to learn concepts and develop the perceptions of the environment. Here the child puts his five senses - see, hear, feel, touch and smell - to use.
As parents, you know the child’s home environment, so today we will examine aspects of the environment, of the developmental programme, in which the child will be involved. As parents, you need to understand the setting, the programme implemented and the reason for emphasis on various aspects of the programme in order to help your child adjust. This will also help to strengthen your child-rearing practices.
The environment will reflect two specific kinds of activities - Routines and Early Stimulation.
Routines include those activities which reflect arrival, departure, eating and bathroom activities.
Early Stimulation consists of those activities which are aimed at enhancing the total development of the child. The activities can be either teacher directed or child selected and are fostered chiefly through play. At his early stage of the child’s development we do not talk about his/her education but early stimulation - the development of his muscles, stimulating his brains to think, develop concentration in preparation for later learning and education.
Play is to the child what work is to the adult. Its value should not be under estimated, since it provides a variety of experiences which stimulate the child and develop the selves I talked about before. Physical, Emotional, Social, Creative and Cognitive.
I will now give some thoughts on play as put forward by varied psychologists to help convince you of the importance of Play.
. Play involves the total being of the child - physical, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual. All aspects of the child’s development are enhanced through play.
· Play is the activity through which young children learn to concentrate, to investigate, to try out new ideas, to practise roles, to discover how things work and to develop a sense of mastery over his/her world.
· Play is the natural way in which the child learns about his world. Concepts are developed through varied and repeated experiences with real materials in self-initiated activities or situations.
· Play is the most complete of all educational processes for it influences the intellectual, the emotions and the body of the child.
· Play experiences, induce learning and learning produces wisdom and character.
The important features from these five views on play which can be emphasized and help us determine its importance is simply that:
Play fosters the total development of the child. It is functional, providing for specific types of learning and interacting with others. Play develops creativity in children, it helps them to learn adult roles through imitation, rules and co-operation through games and to develop new concepts.
Understanding the reasons for making the early years count and the use of development programmes is also linked to the functioning of the family.
The family is better able to understand the developmental needs of the child as they collaborate with the staff of Early Childhood Service to build a bond, between learning at home and the early stimulation received at the service. Further, as the child gets older, his needs change and parents can better work with the child to meet those needs.
Single parents, young parents and large families can all benefit from utilizing and being involved in early childhood programmes. Mothers can pursue their professional careers and help complement family income, and fathers can be involved in the daily business of childcare and development. Other family members also learn the importance of family support and co-operation.
The impact is also felt in the society in general. Children at an early age are stimulated to pursue the things in life that enhance their development. They become more focused on attaining goals and achieving their full potentials to become worthy citizens. Life in the country will be better for all.
The demand for the service will force the operators of programmes to provide quality service as they compete for clients. They have to meet the standards for service with trained and courteous staff, equipment that are child friendly, operate in a safe and healthy environment, and also facilitate parent education as a complement to their programme.
Even though the programmes may be provided by private enterprise, the increased demand for Early Childhood Services will encourage the Government’s intervention to regulate the service and monitor its implementation, thus ensuring that the benefits of the programmes truly reach the children and enhance their total development. There will also be opportunities for services - Health, Social Services - which offer programmes related for early childhood development to collaborate to ensure that services reach the children.
Communities and private enterprises could also use the opportunity to work with sponsors of early childhood programmes in an effort to reach as many persons as possible.
The benefits of participating in an early childhood development programme are many and I am sure that even as I talked about them, you or someone you know may be identifying other benefits that I have not highlighted. Just remember to consider all the issues when you make your decision to use programmes.
I have not provided you with information on any specific service. You can investigate those that operate in your community, talk to the Supervisors so that you know what they offer before you make your decision. I hope that I have helped in some way to enable you to make an informed decision so that the early years will really count in the development of your child/children.