Early childhood education and childcare are not synonymous. As national and local awareness grows about the importance of the earliest years of a child's life in creating a strong foundation for future success, it is important that we understand the difference between early childhood education and childcare.
Certainly there is a need in our country for working parents to find care for their children who are not old enough to go to elementary school, and thus the search for "day care" and "child care" begins. We understand that quality care is important, and the baseline is safety. Anything above "safe" is considered to be a bonus.
Simply put, childcare is the caring for and supervision of a child or children, usually from age six weeks to age thirteen and is the action or skill of looking after children by a day-care center, babysitter, or other providers. Childcare is a broad topic covering a wide spectrum of contexts, activities, social and cultural conventions, and institutions.
Early childhood education is a branch of education theory that relates to the teaching of young children up until the age of about eight, with a particular focus on education, notable in the period before the start of compulsory education.
There is a need for young children to have high quality environments that support and promote their optimal development. This requires much more than being watched, fed and kept safe. It includes caring and nurturing, understanding child development and what young children are learning, and how they are learning it. This means intentional teaching and not just planning activities to keep children busy all day. Why does circle time happen in preschool? Why is it important to develop and follow a routine? What is the purpose of the sensory table? Why is the climate of the classroom such a key element to quality? There is a lot of work that has gone into defining high quality early education, including defining Early Learning Standards in Vermont.
Excellent early childhood programs exist both in homes and at centers that refer to themselves as ‘child care.' This ultimately does a disservice to the profession. It takes training and education to provide excellent early childhood services, including early education. Licensing requirements in Vermont for center-based programs outline various teaching levels. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) requires that 75 percent of teachers have a bachelor's degree in early education (or equivalent) in order to meet qualification criteria. These are not high requirements although they are challenging to meet in early education because the pay is low. This makes it difficult to attract well-qualified candidates and difficult for teachers in the field to pursue higher education. It also makes it difficult to keep well-qualified staff, many of whom seek jobs in the public school system in order to increase their pay. Additionally, as in any profession, a degree does not automatically make an excellent teacher. However, if we are to shift the cultural perception from "it's just child care" to "it is early education" we need to recognize the importance of professionalizing the field.
Early childhood services are one of the most important investments we can make in the future of our children and in the future of our community. Children with a strong foundation are better prepared for school, more productive workers, and healthier adults. These are children who have had the benefit of early education no matter where they got it -- from parents, other family members or in a formal program. Early education is not a replica of elementary school for the birth to 5 set, and having toddlers or preschoolers start to do rote memorization of letters and numbers does not lead to optimal development. The work of a child is play, and teachers understanding that play and providing an early education paradigm and framework to it is what makes the difference between childcare and early education. It is not a matter of simply changing the language and calling everything "early education", it is a matter of clarifying what we mean and using the right language so that people understand the significance of high quality early learning environments.
According to NAEYC, in quality, developmentally appropriate preschool programs, the curriculum, teaching strategies, and environment reflect research-based knowledge about the way children develop and learn.
If your child is between the ages of three and six, NAEYC suggests you look for these 10 signs to make sure your child is in a good classroom.
1. Children spend most of their time playing and working with materials or other children. They do not wander aimlessly and they are not expected to sit quietly for long periods of time.
2. Children have access to various activities throughout the day. Look for assorted building blocks and other construction materials, props for pretend play, picture books, paints and other art materials, and table toys such as matching games, pegboards, and puzzles. All the children should not necessarily all be doing the same activity at the same time.
3. Teachers work with individual children, small groups, and the whole group at different times during the day. They do not spend all their time with the whole group.
4. The classroom is decorated with children's original artwork, their own writing with invented spelling, and stories dictated by children to teachers.
5. Children learn numbers and the alphabet in the context of their everyday experiences. The natural world of plants and animals and meaningful activities like cooking, taking attendance or serving snack provide the basis for learning activities.
6. Children work on projects and have long periods of time (at least one hour) to play and explore. Worksheets are used little, if at all.
7. Children have an opportunity to play outside every day. Outdoor play is never sacrificed for more instructional time.
8. Teachers read books to children individually or in small groups throughout the day, not just at group story time.
9. Curriculum is adapted for those who are ahead as well as those who need additional help. Teachers recognize that children's different backgrounds and experiences mean that they do not learn the same things at the same time in the same way.
10. Children and their parents look forward to school. Parents feel secure about sending their child to the program. Children are happy to attend; they do not cry regularly or complain of feeling sick.
Chloe Learey is the executive director of the Winston Prouty Center for Child Development in Brattleboro.