Thursday, 25 July 2013

The importance of the early years

The early childhood curricula of New Zealand and Australia both acknowledge the importance of the early years.

Te whaariki, the New Zealand document ensures children have the benefit of a quality early childhood programme, in addition to the care and education provided in their own home. In New Zealand, early childhood care and education covers the years from birth to school entry age. Although children can start primary school at five or six, parents tend to let their child start school on their fifth birthday.

In developing its curriculum, the early childhood education services and organisations in New Zealand worked together to formulate a curriculum for the early years distinctive from other curriculum, such as in schools. Te whaariki recognises the special nature of the early years, as it explains that children's developmental needs and capacities in the early years differ from those in any subsequent times of their lives, hence the early childhood curriculum is different in its approach from the curriculum for older children. In particular, for early childhood, Te Whaariki emphasises reciprocal and responsive interaction with others, both adults and peers, who can respond to children's development and changing capabilities.

At the stage of early childhood, the children's patterns of thought and behaviour definitely have their own unique characteristics. A special section in the curriculum document is devoted to describe some special characteristics of infants, toddlers and the young child, supplementing with advice about the key curriculum requirements for them. I think this section is helpful to educators as a handy reference in programme planning and conducting assessment for children.

While the learning environment in the early childhood years is different from that in the school sector, Te whaariki provides links to learning in school settings. The early childhood curriculum is designed to provide a foundation for children to become confident and competent and, during the school years, to be able to build on their previous learning. So, a number of links between the early childhood curriculum and the essential skills of the primary curriculum are conveniently set out at the back of the curriculum document.

More importantly, Te Whaariki not only upholds the integrity of the early years, it lays the foundation for life-long learning. The curriculum is founded on the aspiration for children:
"to grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society."

Similarly, the Early Years learning Framework of Australia advocates for the respect for early childhood as a special place in the sequence of human life. The Framework provides direction for early childhood educators to facilitate learning  for children from birth to five years and through the transitions to school.

Like NZ's, the Australia's national curriculum also suggests that children have their own needs and ways of learning. Specifically, it views children's life as characterised by "belonging, being and becoming". "Being" means treating children as children. The EYLF states that early childhood is a time to be, to seek and make meaning of the world. The early years are about the present, not just solely preparation for the future.

Te Whariki and the EYLF are alike in emphasising the role of relationships in early childhood experience, believing that learning takes place through relationships. Relationships are crucial to a sense of "belonging", which shapes who children are and who they become. The Australia's Framework considers children belong to their family, community, culture, hence the curriculum should respect parents as the child' first and most influential educators.

Lastly, "becoming" reflects the process of change, as young children learn and grow. During early childhood, children's identities, knowledge, understandings, capacities, skills and relationships change. "Becoming", in short, emphasises learning to participate fully and actively in society.

While Te Whariki holds a social perspective as it aspires for children to become a learner who makes contribution to society, the EYLF focuses more on the personal growth of the child, and its vision for children's learning is to ensure "all children experience learning that is engaging and builds success for life."

So far, the two curricula seem to be quite alike. Next time, I will investigate the pedagogy and theories behind the curricula. Interestingly, I can see some differences between Te Whaariki and ELYF....

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