As every new parent will know, the pace of learning that young children experience through their first few years is nothing short of amazing. After a couple of weeks of getting accustomed to our world, babies immediately start racing to figure life out – it’s essential for their survival.
And while the first couple of months of learning happen quickly, the next few years are a whirlwind.
What parents are observing in their children is well established scientific fact. Around 85 to 90 percent of brain development occurs in the first five years of life. In their early years a child forms more than 1 million new neural connections each second.
Child development happens through a cumulative process, with each stage building on the last. By around three months old, development of a child’s neurological pathways for sensing – vision, hearing, touch – peaks and is overtaken by language development. By around six to nine months language development is peaking. A child’s basic capability for language is more or less set by four years of age.
But child development is not a process isolated from the outside world. It very obviously occurs in the context of exposure to stimuli, the most important of which are interactions with other people. Interactions drive child development. The quality of those interactions determine the extent to which a child is set up for school education and later life.
Family interactions, things like reading aloud with others, listening to music, talking and playing, right from birth are vital. The extent to which this happens understandably varies from family to family. Sometimes parental occupation gets in the way. Sometimes there are things going on in a home and it isn’t a happy place. Often parents and carers simply lack the skill and knowledge of how to best provide early learning.
That’s why there has been an increasing focus on growing a profession of early childhood educators who are valued through pay and conditions for their contribution to child learning. Australia needs to move on from seeing their work as child care and the role of early learning centres as a place to leave kids when parents are at work.
Of course it is vital that our society enables workforce participation, particularly for women. Early learning contributes to workforce participation but has a much more important purpose. All of the foundational learning that happens before a child reaches school seriously affects a child’s learning achievement throughout schools, so it needs the support and facilitation of expert educators.
Historically in Australia early learning has not been seen as a right for all children. Foundational learning is not equitably accessible to all children.
I spoke about this in my inaugural speech in the ACT Legislative Assembly. It is something I have been committed to changing since even before I began in politics. Now, as education minister in the ACT, I have an opportunity and responsibility to tackle it head on.
The ACT government committed during the 2016 election to develop an Early Childhood Strategy aimed at providing, for the first time, a cohesive strategy for early childhood education and development in the ACT.
Through work on the strategy it has become clear that there is an opportunity for the ACT to make radical progress, most significantly through providing free, universal quality early childhood education for three year old children. I am excited to say that I have been working towards including a plan for this as a key part of the strategy when it is released later this year.