By MARGARET NORRIE McCAIN
As a mother and a grandmother, I’ve witnessed marked changes in parenting styles. In the small town where I raised my children, kindergarteners walked to school with their friends. Neighbourhood moms had an ear cocked to the sounds of outdoor play, but no constant adult eyes were assigned to supervise. My grandchildren were surrounded by more precautions. They were bused to school. Their play took place on safety-certified playgrounds or as part of organized sports outfitted with protective equipment.
Parenting today calls for high vigilance. It comes from a place of wanting to keep children safe, but it is also driven by a desire to ensure children receive the very best. In the age of the internet, there is no shortage of advice about what is best.
Many Nova Scotia parents are now deciding if it is best to send their four-year-old to a full day of free pre-primary programming opening in their neighbourhood school this fall. The questions are many: If children are already exposed to books and creative activities at home, is pre-primary necessary? Isn’t four too young to sit at a desk all day? Are schools ready for such small children?
Pre-primary isn’t a replacement for a loving and stimulating home life, but it is an important complement. In pre-primary, there are no desks. Classrooms are organized around sand and water tables, craft and block centres, dress-up nooks, miniature kitchens and soft places to cuddle up with a book or take a nap. Educators work in teams with small classes. They have specialized training in how to coach children to answer their own questions by exploring options, experimenting and working co-operatively with others. These rich settings fuel children’s natural curiosity and learning soars.
The academic paybacks from preschool are well documented, but many experts believe the enduring benefits are derived from children being with their peers. By participating in pre-primary, children learn from one another how to be patient, to share, to consider the feelings of others, to listen and contribute — skills they will need for school and for life.
For the more than one in three children in the province who begin school with gaps in their vocabulary and self-confidence, pre-primary can be a game changer, helping to develop the cognitive and social skills that will allow them to adapt more successfully to school.
Children from disadvantaged homes may gain more from pre-primary, but all children benefit. Research shows a good start to school carries through with better academic and social outcomes, better graduation rates and higher earnings, and more successful relationships as adults.
More than half of Canadian children now attend some form of preschool. The decision to front-end education with pre-primary is based on a wide swath of research, including Nova Scotia-made evidence from the eight Early Years Centres, which tested the program in each school district. By participating in the pilot, schools learned how to better welcome young children and their families. Those educators are now sharing their learnings with others. Primary teachers reported that children who attended the centres began school with greater confidence and skills, creating a more productive learning environment for teachers and students.
Parents will come to different conclusions as to whether pre-primary is right for their child. Some will withhold their children entirely, and that’s fine. Pre-primary is a voluntary program. Some will enrol their children for the educational boosts, others for the social benefits and some parents will look at it as a way to save on child care.
Regardless of their motivations, all Nova Scotians will prosper from this essential investment in their youngest citizens. By improving educational outcomes, reducing illiteracy and poverty, and making the province a place where young families want to come and stay, Nova Scotia will feel the ripples of its decision to open its schools to four-year-olds today, and for generations to come.
Margaret Norrie McCain is a former lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick, a philanthropist and champion for universal early education.