Co-authored by Benetta Strydom
Nelson Mandela, the well-known statesmen, once said, “Education is the great engine to personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine, that the child of a farm worker can become the president of a great nation.”
The truth of this statement can only be fully appreciated if one considers the enormous importance of preschool education. The famous Japanese violin teacher and educationists, Shinichi Suzuki, once expressed a great truism when he said, “The destiny of children lies in the hands of their parents.” The direction and the quality of this destiny are largely determined — by the parents — in the first seven years of the child’s life.
A study by High/Scope Educational Research Foundation of Ypsilanti, Michigan, showed the significant value of early learning. From 1962-1967, 123 African Americans, all aged 3 to 4 and born in poverty, and therefore at a high risk of later failing in school, were randomly divided into two groups. One group was exposed to a high-quality preschool program while the control group was not exposed to any preschool programs. The program that the experimental group was exposed to was based on High/Scope’s active learning approach. In the study’s most recent phase, 95% of the participants were interviewed at age 27. Additional data were gathered from the subjects’ school, social service and arrest records. The most significant findings of this study were:
- Almost a third as many of those attending the preschool program, opposed to those with no preschool exposure (71% vs. 54%) graduated from regular or adult high school, or received their General Education Development Certificate.
- At age 27, four times as many of those exposed to the preschool program, opposed to those with no preschool exposure (29% vs. 7%) earned $2,000 or more per month, and they also scored higher on home and car ownership.
- At age 27, only one fifth as many of those with proper preschool exposure, opposed to those with no preschool exposure (7% vs. 35%) had been arrested five or more times, and significantly fewer arrests for drug dealing were made under the preschool program group members (7% vs. 25%).
- The rate of out-of-wedlock births was lower among the group that had received preschool exposure (57% vs. 83%).
There is a proverb that one never gets too old to learn. This, however, is only partially true. There are indeed certain aspects of learning that can only be acquired effectively during the first seven years of life. Parents, who are desirous of offering their child an adequate preschool education, should therefore take care to concentrate on these aspects of learning. Some of the most important of these skills and aspects of learning are discussed on the following pages.
Language ability has been found to be an important predictor of reading ability. It is therefore of the utmost importance that parents should do everything possible to ascertain that their child be given optimum opportunities for language acquisition, more so because of the fact that, before the age of seven, a child has a phenomenal ability to learn language. From the age of eight years, the child’s ability to learn language is equal to that of an adult. It is therefore very unwise if parents do not exploit the wonderful opportunity that is presented only once in every child’s life, and only for a short space of time.
Parents should talk to their toddler as often and as much as possible. The more the small child is exposed to language, the quicker he will start to understand speech and later also start speaking. It is important that on a daily basis time should be set aside for story reading and/or story telling. However, it is vital that the same story be read or told over and over every day. The same story should be read to the child for several months before a new story — a slightly more advanced one — is introduced. This new story must also be read over and over for many months.
Effective language acquisition is dependent upon ample repetition of the same words, phrases and language structures.
Concentration is both an act of will and an acquired skill. For that reason it is important that parents make sure that the small child will receive enough opportunities to exercise this skill, so that he will be able to sit still and concentrate for at least 20 minutes or so by the time that he goes to school. From about two years the parents can start reading stories to the child. It is important, however, that the child must sit still and listen to the story. He must not be allowed to run around or play during the reading. To make this possible, the parent must start with a short story of about five minutes, and then little-by-little increase the time. In this way the child’s attention span can gradually be stretched.
3. Work attitude:
The idea of school readiness is a universally accepted concept. However, readiness for work is probably even more important than school readiness. There has been a tendency over the past decades to try to make learning fun. This is certainly one of the reasons why there is so much learning failure all over the world at present, because learning isn’t fun; it is work. Naturally, work — just like learning — can often be very interesting, and it can even be enjoyable. Moreover, there are always aspects of work — and therefore also of learning — that are neither interesting nor enjoyable. Regardless of this, however, they have to be done. It is of the utmost importance to teach a child that work is something that has to be done, and done to the best of one’s ability — also those aspects of work that are not interesting or enjoyable. The child whose parents do not succeed in teaching him this, faces a very hard and difficult future.
Nowadays, two of the common symptoms of children, who have difficulties with learning and with reading, are that they have low muscle tone and that they never crawled. Both these problems can be prevented in a very simple and easy way.
Low muscle tone is merely an indication of weak muscle strength, and a baby will only crawl if his parents teach him to do so. Children can only do what they are taught to do.
General muscle strength of the body is to a large extent determined by the strength of the back muscles. Muscles remain weak when they are not exercised. Parents should from very early in his life provide their child with opportunities to exercise his muscles, especially the back muscles. This can — and should — start from as early as a month or two.
By following a very simple procedure, parents can lay the foundation for their children to later have good coordination and strong muscles. From about a month or so the little baby should be allowed to spend as much time as possible on the floor in the face-down position. The baby will lift up his head, and this will develop strong back muscles. Being left in this position will also encourage the baby to try to move forward, which will encourage him to start crawling.
Later, when the child is a little bigger, eye-hand coordination can be developed by playing throwing and catching games with the child with a ball or bean bags. Fine motor control, as a preparation for a good handwriting, can be developed by letting the child crumple papers. Start by tearing pages from an old telephone directory, and giving the child one page at a time to crumple into a tight ball with one hand only.
5. Body parts:
Put on a pair of glasses with blue lenses. Everything you look at will have a tint of blue.
The great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), once said that we “see things not as they are but as we are.” This axiomatic statement is based on the fact that we human beings approach and interpret our world from inside our bodies. Just like everything appears blue to the persons with blue lenses, our perception of our world is tinged by our knowledge of our own bodies. The child, who has inadequate knowledge of his own body, will be inclined to misinterpret the world around him.
For an example of this, consider the phenomenon of reversals. Our bodies have a right and a left side. It is therefore inevitable that we shall interpret all objects that we encounter in terms of two-sidedness. Unless the child has been familiarized adequately with his own sidedness, there is the distinct danger that he may misinterpret the sidedness of other things — like b’s and d’s, for example.
Bath time presents an excellent opportunity to teach the small child body parts and sidedness. As soon as the child is able to sit up by himself in the bath, the teaching should commence. Don’t simply take the little foot and scrub it; rather hold your hand and then say, “Give me your right foot,” and wait for the child to place his right foot into your hand. If he gives you his left foot, say, “No, the right foot,” and then scrub only this foot. Next, nominate another body part, with left or right, and wash this. In this way go through all the various body parts, each one — where applicable — with left and right.
If a parent continues doing this every night for two or three years, the child will certainly have no uncertainties about left and right or body image. The effect of this, inter alia, will be that the child will not have any difficulties distinguishing between b’s and d’s.
Counting can be regarded as the language of mathematics. It is therefore just as important to teach a child from very early in life to count well. The easiest way to teach a child counting is to start with his fingers, first with the fingers of one hand and then later both hands. Remember that, like with anything else, much repetition is required.
Color is another very important very basic thing that should be taught to children very early in life. It is important to start teaching the basic colors first, white, black, red, green, blue and yellow. Again much repetition is required. One can, for example, play games with colors, e.g. “Put all the yellow blocks into the green box.”