It used to be straightforward. At the age of four children went to kindergarten for a year, then when they turned five they started primary school. The ritual of the first day at school involved new bags and stationery, and very often a few tears from both the parents and the child.
But in recent years, the choices on offer to parents have widened. For a start many children attend childcare from an early age. Kindy is still there, but there’s also ELC, Montessori and Steiner options. It can be difficult for parents to work out what the best option is for their child.
We talked to Head of Early Learning at SPW Gemma D’Angelo about the ELC model and what parents should consider when choosing the right early childhood option for their child/children.
Every stage has its merit
According to Gemma it is really important to remember that every stage of a child’s development has its own merit.
“It can be tempting for parents and educators to focus on the next stage and to hurry children along. But it’s very important to set the right tone and expectations for the current moment in time,” she said.
“It’s really not important for a 3 or 4-year old child to enter Early Learning being able to read or write their own name. But it is important that children of this age are happy, safe and curious. If they love playing and are learning to communicate and interact with others, we are setting the perfect foundation for the rest of their childhood and education.”
Setting the right foundation
Children can start attending the SPW Early Learning Centre (ELC) from the age of two, and the model is built on the science of natural brain development. ELC is all about setting the right foundations for learning and developing the social and emotional capacity of young children.
Gemma says there are some early learning models that are very structured, others which have no structure, and that the ELC model seeks to find a happy middle ground.
“One of the fundamental principles of the ELC model is that young children learn through play. Research has shown that young children learn best when they form positive relationships and that stress is counter-productive to both their self-esteem and ability to learn.
“In that respect, children aren’t so different from adults, and no-one functions at their best in a stressful environment. So we work very hard to give children an environment that is supportive and fun. We want the children to see the ELC as an extension of their home and somewhere they want to come.”
Gemma says the ELC team’s job is to teach the children to think, not to provide all the answers.
“Children are naturally playful and curious. Our job is to give them the confidence to think for themselves and the skills to learn. In the future these children will need to be able to think, communicate and work in a range of ways to understand their world. Our ambition is to set the foundations which will last a lifetime.”
The ELC day
One of the big differences between ELC and childcare is that ELC is really centred first on the educational needs of the child, while also accommodating the working patterns of the parents. At SPW we have a qualified Early Childhood teacher facilitating the program for the children in each room.
All children must attend at least one full day a week, with core hours of attendance from 8.30am to 3.15pm. Working with specialist early learning educators, the children learn through both structured and unstructured play and inquiry.
“At SPW we are part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme and inquiry is really important. What it means on a day-to-day basis is that we have broad themes that encourage the children to discover and learn.
In the most recent school term, children have been learning about living and non-living things. Caterpillars munching on green leaves and tiny hatching quails have both inspired learning and delight.
Practical considerations are also taken into account, with children having a nap after lunch or when they need it, and healthy snacks provided in the mornings and afternoons. Some of the children will leave at 3.15, but many children will stay on for a couple more hours until their parents have finished work, enjoying further play with friends.
“We really look after every aspect of their wellbeing and development. The design of our centre blends our rooms with outdoor nature play and a central courtyard, so the children get to move and explore and be part of the wider early learning community, not just in their own room all day,” Gemma said.
“The relationship with parents is also really important in supporting each child’s learning development. We meet all parents early in Term 1 to learn as much as we can about their family and child, and we really see the child’s development as a team effort.”
A successful journey to primary school
One of the key benefits of children attending an ELC linked to a primary school is the ease of transition into formal education.
“For our ELC children, starting primary school is a seamless transition. As our Foundation (Reception) classrooms are part of our Early Learning facility. Children grow accustomed to accessing shared play spaces and a range of different learning spaces throughout the school. For instance, our youngest ELC children at two years of age use the school facilities such as the oval and library,” Gemma said.
“It’s a gradual process of exposure to the school, and building relationships with the teachers. The most important thing is that they are comfortable here and have a strong sense of belonging. It means starting school is just like another day.”
Gemma’s top five tips for choosing the right option for your child
1. Look for an environment that supports your values at home. Learning happens equally at home and school and it works best when those two environments are working together.
2. Find an environment where relationships are valued. Children grow, learn and thrive when they have people around them who genuinely care for them.
3. Early learning is about setting the right foundation. Lots of desks and work sheets are not good indicators of a quality early learning environment.
4. When you go on a tour, use all your senses. Listen for a calm but fun environment. Take a look around; check for engaging learning experiences inside and outside. Are the children happy? Are the educators spending their time engaging with the children?
5. Ask as many questions as you need to make sure it’s the right option for your child, no-one knows them better than you.