“Share everything… Play fair… Don’t hit people… Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody…” American author Robert Fulghum’s 1988 book All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten was a slim volume, but it resonated with people.

Fulghum’s list of 16 rules, which forms the bestseller book’s title essay, sets out everything supposedly needed for a peaceful world. It spawned a million bumper stickers and even earned the ultimate, if backhanded, accolade: its own parody on The Simpsons.

Three decades on, it can be argued that kindergarten and other early childhood education (ECE) centres have never been more important for building social connections and teaching the life skills needed for success in later education, careers and relationships with others in general.

21st century skills

Tertiary education and business sectors have long talked about the importance of so-called ‘soft skills’, such as collaboration, communication and resilience in the workplace. Schools, too, now have a significant focus on these attributes, also known as ‘21st century skills’.
The aim is to create lifelong learners with strong personal attributes that give them social intelligence, and the ability to problem solve and interact effectively with others.

Extensive research has shown that it’s important to gain these skills even before school. But what’s not always recognised is that early childhood educators have actually been teaching them for a long time.

“ECE has a secret,” says ChildForum CEO and senior education researcher Dr Sarah Alexander. “It has always been well ahead on the schooling sector in giving children opportunities to develop and practise soft skills along with core competencies to thrive in today’s world.”

“While the schooling sector talks about preparing children for the 21st century and has lots of debates about the curriculum, the early childhood sector quite simply just does it.”
Nelson kindergarten head teacher Virginia Oakly, who is also the NZEI early childhood representative, agrees.

“Are ECEs teaching 21st century skills? I would say absolutely we are, but I would also say we were teaching them in the 20th century as well as the 21st.”
Kindergarten teachers often talk about these skills as base skills, or tool skills, she adds.
“We are building the skills that children need, so when they go into the schooling system they are able to learn.

“A huge part of what we are doing is around communication, collaboration, thinking and getting them to know that they can learn, developing empathy, learning how to play with other children, learning how to sit on the mat, how to work alongside with other children, to be able to listen, and to even know that they are capable of learning.
“That is our work, basically!”

Soft skills = learning dispositions

Soft skills are called learning dispositions within the ECE sector, says Binky Laureta, programme leader for the Graduate Diploma in Teaching at ECE level, at the New Zealand Tertiary College (NZTC).

“If the connection is made that soft skills and learning dispositions are the same, then it will be given the attention it deserves in the sector.”

Soft skills are effectively “employability skills”, she adds. As a result, higher education, business and the government should also take notice, she says, “of what we have already achieved in the field for decades”.

The development of New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki in the early nineties, and its official publication in 1996, then formalised the approach.
This means soft skills are now embedded in the ECE curriculum, says Laureta.
ECE services are required to support children to develop the learning dispositions of courage and curiosity, trust and playfulness, perseverance, confidence and responsibility.

Since the curriculum was revised in 2017, four more dispositions have been added: reciprocity, creativity, imagination and resilience.

The curriculum also includes five primary goals: wellbeing, belonging, contribution, communication and exploration.

All of these skills are interlinked, says Oakly, and tamariki who don’t have those skills in place will struggle to learn at primary school.

“It’s really hard for them; they’re on the back foot before they even begin at school to learn reading and writing.

“We have to do what we can to get that right, at this age, so that they can go on to the next step of their learning journey and have success.”

These sorts of skills are “vital and critical” and can often determine success later in life, she says.

“More often than not, the adults who don’t have these skills in place are the ones who struggle to hold down a job; they’re more likely to take a wrong step.

“You can see the ability to self-regulate, to hold ourselves back, to think first and speak later, the ability to get on with your work colleagues – that sort of stuff is so, so important.”

‘Soft skills and early childhood education: Strange bedfellows or an ideal match?’ by Binky Laureta is available in the NZTC’s online journal He Kupu.

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