Student success lies in early learning

Early Learning lays foundations for lifelong learning  
Early Learning lays foundations for lifelong learning  
There are four Catholic Early Learning Centres in the diocese
There are four Catholic Early Learning Centres in the diocese

A recent report by Mitchell Institute at Victoria University, has shown that two years of quality preschool can have a huge impact on all children, dramatically improving brain growth and emotional wellbeing, and is especially beneficial for children facing educational challenges. Almost a quarter of young Australians face significant obstacles when it comes to education, and the Mitchell Institute maintains that a high quality early learning experience is one of the most effective strategies in altering the course of these young people’s lives and placing them on pathways to achieve their full potential.

It has been suggested by the Mitchell Institute that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) conduct a study next year to plan for national implementation of a universal preschool program for 3 year olds. Over the last five years almost all Australian 4 year olds enrol in preschool, and the argument is that 3 year olds deserve the same access to positive learning experiences.

What does quality early learning look like?

In the past, early learning in Australia has been approached in a somewhat informal fashion, with many parents failing to see the educational value in what they viewed as a largely social activity, allowing their children to adjust to being away from home and with other children their own age. It was seen as a stepping stone to ‘big school’, but most parents didn’t expect a curriculum to be followed.

In recent times this perception has shifted and the importance of preschool learning has emerged as a critical area of reform. In 2012 the National Quality Framework through the agreement of all Australian governments, introduced a new quality standard to improve education and care across long day care, family day care, preschool/kindergarten, and outside school hours care. Learning in a child’s formative years is linked to the establishment of self-esteem, resilience, curiosity and a capacity to learn. Donna Harding, Director and Educational Leader, Catholic Early Learning Centre Mary Queen of the Family Parish, Blacktown South, says ‘preschool education lays the foundation for all future learning, and is responsible for vital cognitive, social, emotional and physical developments. It is about developing multiple intelligences.’ 

The National Quality Framework involved the introduction of Belonging, Being and Becoming - The Early Years Learning Framework, which has a specific focus on play-based learning. ‘Play’ is a difficult term to define, but it has been linked to positive child development across countries and cultures, and the theories behind ‘learning through play’ have their origins in the work of early modern social contrast theorists, Locke and Rosseau. 

Indeed, Donna Harding, CELC Blacktown, says in the formulation of her own personal approach to early learning, ‘I came across research that showed MRI results of young children forced into traditional learning scenarios based on drill and practice revealed high levels of stress. By comparison, children learning at their own pace through positive play scenarios were much calmer’.

The types of playful learning that result in positive educational experiences for young children can include:

  • Pleasurable-play – where children are enjoying themselves, but at the same time face some frustrations and challenges. E.g. building a marble run.
  • Symbolic-play – this is pretend play, games of imagination that have great meaning for the children involved that isn’t always obvious to the educator. E.g. children casting themselves as dragons or knights and having rules about who does what, where they are allowed to go etc.
  • Active-play – requires action, either physical, verbal or mental engagement with materials, people, ideas or the environment. E.g. Riding bikes, building sandcastles. 

Research shows that play builds and strengthens pathways in the brain and allows children’s minds to become more flexible and well-prepared for future learning. In the words of Maria Montessori, ‘play is the work of children’.

The unique offering of Catholic Early Learning Centres (CELC)

There are currently four Catholic Early Learning Centres in the Parramatta Diocese and each one is in the unique position of being linked to a Catholic Primary school – located alongside the school, but also operating within the same educational system. The benefits of this are manifold for both learners and educators.

‘We work with greater collaboration with schools than other centres. The majority of our children need to worry far less about transition issues as they are moving to the school that they are already familiar with and starting kindergarten is more like a continuation of their learning journey than a totally new step,’ says Donna Harding, CELC Blacktown.

‘We work alongside our school and it isn’t unusual for kindergarten students to come to our centre to participate in shared learning activities, or for our children to take part in school activities. We establish a good foundation for our kindy buddy program by having Year 5 students take part in our Book Week celebration with the students who they will be mentoring the following year. We really are learning partners,’ Donna says.

While following the National Early Years Learning Framework, CELCS incorporate Catholic values and traditions and have been influenced by Steiner and Montessori schools, the Reggio Emilia approach and the work of Ellen Galinksy. Donna maintains that this combination of approaches to early learning results in foundational learning that is ‘holistic, play-based and driven by the children’s interests.’

‘We aren’t the all powerful controllers of knowledge any more, as educators we know realise that we are just facilitators of learning and we are learning alongside the children all the time,’ states Donna.

Catholic education in the Parramatta Diocese has a reputation for harnessing the power of technology in learning, however in the early childhood setting, technology has often been shunned and labelled ‘disruptive’ or even ‘damaging’ to young children. Natalie Bugelli, Director and Educational Leader, CELC Holy Family Parish, Emerton, sees this as a shortsighted approach and argues that there is a place for technology in early learning.

‘The guidelines state that children’s screen time should be limited to one hour, and we know that many children exceed this at home. In our centre we seek to use technology as tools rather than as babysitters. We don’t let children sit passively in front of screens or devices, we use technology in interactive ways to enhance learning, such as using iPads as cameras to photograph our surroundings or to use the internet to get answers to the children’s questions. Our use of technology is purposeful,’ says Natalie.

What does the future hold for early learning?

2017 will see the opening of St Luke’s Catholic College, Marsden Park, a Catholic learning community aiming to be a next generation school offering a multitude of learning pathways from early learning to Year 12 and post-school pathways. The college’s contemporary approach will be underpinned by leading educational research and practice using today's technologies. The early learning component of the community is not scheduled to commence until 2018, however Principal, Greg Miller says plans are already in place for a new approach to preschool.

‘We use the metaphor of building a bridge between preschool and school, and we aim to make that bridge a physical reality and the movement from early learning to more formal schooling very seamless and natural. We want to remove the language of transition and replace it with continuity,’ he says.

An early years learning coach will be working alongside infants’ teachers in 2017 to identify the learning needs of children and to gain a deeper understanding of their social, emotional and educational needs. Observed behaviour of children will be the guide of the early learning approach adopted the following year. This approach could see children moving through schooling based on their needs as opposed to based purely on their age.

‘If we see a 4-year-old who is ready for what have been typically Kindergarten activities we could provide those, what children are capable of should not be determined solely by their age, but also their social and emotional needs and learning progress,’ states Greg.

The possibilities for early learning are endless, and it seems the revolution in education is not limited to schools, but extends to the very foundations of learning.


Children Better Off with Two Years of Preschool
The Early Years Learning Framework
The National Quality Framework

 ‘Why play-based learning?’, Lennie Barblett, Every Child Vol. 16 No. 3—Play and learning
Posted By Samantha Rich at 6/12/2016 10:39:17 AM

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