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The Importance of Preschool Education

Preschool education in South Africa does not reach even half of the children of preschool age who would benefit from it. Many more facilities are needed, especially in the rural areas.

I like to use the European word “Kingergarten” to refer to preschool education, as it brings to my mind a wonderful picture of a colourful garden, especially for children, still fresh and new at life, who are accompanied by special adults who are fortunate enough to work with them and walk next to them in their preschool years.

Preschool teachers have a specific teaching qualification that enables them to know how to plan the space, as well as the daily programme successfully, with the children’s developmental needs in mind. Preschool teachers are always aware that they are teaching children, not subjects, and the Whole Child is important to them. Teachers in the preschool are teaching values, and habits of learning. 

There are immediate advantages and more distant future advantages for children who are able to attend a preschool. 

The immediate advantages are that small children are spending their time looked after by loving adults who are supervising and nurturing them throughout every day. Both the inside and outside areas of preschool facilities are designed for the safety of small children. There are clean, hygienic classroom, kitchen and bathroom areas. The children receive nutritious meals, usually breakfast and lunch. They also receive good medical attention from the local clinics, who visit the preschools regularly to see that the children are dewormed and receive their immunisations at the right age. There are opportunities for children at preschools to play robustly, to learn and to rest during the course of every day.

The daily programme at a preschool always includes all aspects of learning that children need to master to achieve “readiness” for Grade 1. The children learn to work in groups, to respond to group teaching and discussions, they become used to routines. They learn early literacy in their own home languages, they learn early numeracy as well. Fluency in the home language is a very important part of the preschool programme, and often children are also introduced to other languages at this stage, when their brains are wired towards optimum language development. There is time for self-chosen activities as well as teacher-directed activities. Children learn to listen and concentrate, they learn to play constructively with toys that are designed for learning.

They learn to complete tasks, and they have opportunities to dream, imagine, predict, understand, discover, visualise, plan, observe, participate, respond to challenges, compare, practise, experiment, remember, enjoy……

Educational games and puzzles develop all areas of young brains, and construction sets enable children to follow their own ideas to their own satisfaction. Art activities develop hand and finger muscles, as well as appreciation of colour, contrast, texture and design. The love of books and reading is also promoted in a preschool environment, and this leads to a wider vocabulary and good language usage. Singing and music contributes to language development and concentration.

Outdoor activities develop whole-body muscles and all aspects of climbing and balancing. Ball skills are also part of the preschool programme. Children develop a great deal of self-esteem through mastery of large body movements, climbing very high, swinging in a daring way and being adventurous generally. Preschool activities traditionally include all activities that make us human, that even the most primitive people did: art, music and stories every day.

Children who have attended preschools, even for only one year, are often more successful at primary school, not because they are more intelligent (the research indicates that there is no increase in IQ), but because they are more resilient, more willing to take risks, and because they have more positive self-esteem as a result of their preschool experiences.

But it seems that there are definitely long-term social benefits for families where children have attended preschools. Such studies take years to complete as the researchers have to wait for time to pass until the preschool children reach adulthood to see how they compare with their peers who have not attended preschools, and even with their own siblings who did not have the benefit of preschool education.

Studies in USA over 40 years indicated that children who had previously attended preschools showed greater academic achievement in their later high school careers, fewer high school dropouts, less unemployment and higher earnings by age 19, less delinquency, fewer encounters with the criminal justice system, fewer teenage pregnancies, and a greater likelihood of attending church. They usually had steady jobs, did not need welfare grants and often owned their own homes. Studies in South Africa have shown the same results. Added to the above positive behaviours, children in this country who attended preschool are also less likely to vandalise infrastructure.

To sum up, some wise words from Robert Fulghum, who wrote “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. Most of what I really need to know about how to live and what to do, and how to be, I learned in preschool. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pit at preschool.

These are the things I learned: Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. 

Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. Take a nap every afternoon. 

When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the plastic cup. The roots go down and the plant goes up and
nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the plastic cup – they all die. So do we.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere – the Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation, ecology and politics and equality and sane living. Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world, and they hold true and clear and firm. Think what a better place it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk at about 3 o’clock every afternoon and then lay down for a nap. Or if our country always put things back where it found them and cleaned up its own mess.

And its still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out into the world, its best to hold hands and stick together.”