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Jack’s dad recently commented that every time he went to pick Jack up from his preschool, he was playing. What was going on?! He was surprised that Jack hadn’t learned to read or write yet – he was starting school soon and he was worried that he was going to be slow to develop which would then put him behind in class!

Jack’s dad was repeating a common mistaken belief – that preschool children are just having fun until they start school, without any ’real’ learning taking place. He was also falling into the trap of thinking that to get ahead, Jack would need to read and write before starting school. In fact, the opposite is true.

In the early years play is what young children’s brains are hard-wired for, that’s how they learn the skills that they’ll draw on for the rest of their lives. Through play, children learn social skills, creative expression, resilience, focus, risk-taking, thinking and problem-solving skills – much of which is the foundation from which all formal learning will be based. Research shows that the more opportunities children have to learn through a play-based curriculum in the early years, the better the future results in formal education. Some experts believe that preschool children who experience a high amount of formal learning can be disadvantaged, simply because their self-expressed play time is less. Further, they argue that the early years are the most vital in a person’s learning journey, and that this is where parents should focus their resources – even more so than university.

Jack’s dad wondered what value Jack’s teachers were adding to Jack’s learning. To him, the teachers were simply keeping the children at Jack’s centre entertained and safe. In fact, qualified early childhood teachers have three-year degrees and are skilled in provoking meaningful learning through play, extending on children’s interests with the view to supporting them to develop new knowledge, skills and provide opportunities to help them reflect on ‘how they learn’. Jack’s teachers are guided in their work by the world-renowned New Zealand Early Childhood curriculum ‘Te Whariki’, which focuses on all aspects of Jack’s development and learning including his wellbeing and sense of place and belonging in the world.

Perhaps terms such as ‘childcare’ and ‘daycare’ haven’t helped Jack’s dad with his perception that the early childhood sector is a kind of holding place or babysitting service until school. Many teachers now prefer to describe their centre as an ‘early learning centre’ as a more accurate description, reflecting their expertise and focus on every child as they learn those vital skills that will support them for the rest of their lives.

Jack’s dad saw Jack as ‘just playing’ when in fact something extraordinary was happening for Jack. He was engaged in the most powerful learning – through play. Jack was actively learning about the world around him, growing in self-confidence, self-expression, creativity, focus, and resilience. Jack’s teachers were supporting him with the skills he needs to go on to be the awesome scientist, builder or lawyer he will become in his later life. Now that’s more than Jack’s dad could ever hope for.

Clair Edgeler, BestStart Education and Care

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