Early start makes a difference

Children gather in a circle during story time at Peter & Jane Kindergarten.

Early childhood education is the foundation for lifelong learning and plays an important role in the growth and development of a child.

IT is never too early to get children started on learning. Studies show that a child’s physical, intellectual, social and emotional growth develops exponentially in the first six years of her life.

Of course, learning begins from the time a child is born – some people even argue that it starts from the time a child is conceived, which explains the increase in pre-natal classes – and continues for the rest of her life. But, the capacity to learn is the most intense during her preschool or kindergarten years, before she enters primary school. Therefore, it is crucial to give children positive early childhood care and education (ECCE).

“The foundation needs to be laid. Critical learning happens within the first six years, so the window of opportunity is very small,” said ECCE Council founding president Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng.

The good thing is that children have an innate desire to learn. Babies would place things in their mouth as that is the way they make sense of the world around them. Likewise, a toddler would protest when he is placed in a playpen as he would rather be out to venture and play, she added.

“By the time a child reaches six, so much development has taken place,” said Dr Shen-Li Lee, author, and founder of parenting website, Figur8 – Nurture for the future.

As the late Glenn Doman, an American pioneer in the field of child brain development, wrote in How to Teach Your Baby to Read: “The brain absorbs a tremendous amount of information in the first six years of life – three times more than during the entire lifetime.

“By the age of six, the human brain is almost complete in its development. The information children learn by then will serve as a basis for knowledge and wisdom which will increase during the rest of their life.”

Doman also emphasised that the ability to acquire new facts is inversely proportionate to age: a one-year-old child learns more easily than a seven-year-old, and it is easier to teach a five-year-old to read than it is to teach a six-year-old.

Kindergarten children are taught to read at Sudut Ilmu JKKK Bukit Panchor in Penang – File photo
Kindergarten children are taught to read at Sudut Ilmu JKKK Bukit Panchor in Penang – File photo

Preschool learning

So, what exactly do children learn in preschool?

Aside from numbers, letters, shapes, literacy and language, the more important thing they learn is social skills.

Preschools also teach kids how to be independent and confident, to share, form their own opinions, compromise, solve problems, ask questions, and decipher the world around them.

“Children need to learn how to ‘separate’ from their parents, and interact and negotiate with teachers and other children. They also need to be taught how to read emotional cues, control their own emotions and how to respond appropriately (in a given situation). They have to set their limits and make sure these are not encroached on as that’s how bullying starts,” said Dr Chiam.

It is important for children to learn these skills in their early years and then build on them through the years, she stressed. “If you leave this underdeveloped for too long, they might end up not knowing how to relate to people.”

Dr Chiam says critical learning happens within the first six years.
Dr Chiam says critical learning happens within the first six years.

Dr Lee, who is a mother of two young boys, believes in a holistic approach to education that develops the ‘whole child’ – in heart, mind and body. “A lot of early development is about engagement,” she said.

For example, parents who constantly talk to their children, even when they are babies encourage them to learn new words, Dr Lee said. Likewise, a committed teacher would be able to stimulate learning and even get a shy child to participate in group activities.

The National Institute for Early Education Research in the United States states that children who attend at least one year of quality preschool have better reading skills, richer vocabularies, and stronger basic math skills than those who do not. It also ensures a smoother transition to formal schooling.

So how do you choose the right preschool and what are the key things to look out for?

For a start, check to make sure that the centre is legitimate – the licence to operate is usually hung in front of the premises, or, in the office. Next, pick a location that is convenient for you, a fee that suits your budget, and the type of school you want – half-day or full-day sessions.

Most preschools take in children from age three. But remember that the popular ones tend to have a waiting list so you may want to enlist your child early – sometimes a year in advance.

Dr Lee says a lot of early development is about engagement.
Dr Lee says a lot of early development is about engagement.

The ratio of teacher to children is important; each class should not have more than 25 students under one teacher.

Facilities, such as an art and music room, playground and reading corner, play a role in holistic learning too.

Talk to parents who have children in the preschool to learn about their experience. Then, schedule a visit with your child to meet the teachers and see how she responds to the environment and staff.

While you are there, check out their health and safety procedures.

And if you are planning to send your child there for the full day, find out more about the meals they serve.

But most importantly is how you feel when you are there.

The school should make you feel comfortable and confident that you are leaving your child in good hands.

Tadika Langkah Pertama in Penang celebrate different festivals – File photo
Tadika Langkah Pertama in Penang celebrate different festivals – File photo

WHEN it comes to education, there are different approaches one can employ. Finding one that suits your child can be daunting. So here’s a peek at a few popular curricula available in Malaysia.


The Montessori Method, developed by Dr Maria Montessori follows a child-centred approach that offers them the freedom to explore activities of their choice, at their own pace. Teachers are present to facilitate rather than to direct the children’s learning. This hands-on method is said to foster independence and encourages individualism.


This allows children to learn or master a different language as all subjects are taught entirely in a foreign language. Multilingualism not only opens up more opportunities but is also said to offer immediate cognitive advantages to kids. Studies have shown that children who know different languages have better attention and task-switching capacities.


This approach involves using a specific theme to teach one or many concepts. Children are taken through various activities connected to a theme, which allows them to make active engagement with their environment. It fosters teamwork and helps children relate academic skills to real-world ideas.


Religious preschools may offer similar education philosophies and curriculum as other schools, but incorporate religious and often culural content. These schools are beneficial if you would like your child’s education to emphasise the fundamental teachings and values of your religion and culture.


The theory of multiple intelligences was coined by Howard Gardner who identified seven types of intelligences: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical-rhythmic, interpersonal-social, and intrapersonal-self. Preschools that follow Gardner’s theory offer learning activities designed to engage all of these intelligences.


This approach places importance on all aspects of a child’s development, be it physical, social, emotional, cognitive, or language. Whole-child preschools promote a healthy lifestyle, offer physical and emotional safety, and encourage students to learn and play a role in the community.


-Waldorf, or Steiner education emphasises the experiential role in learning, and integrates the arts.

-Right Brain Education taps the potential of the “right brain” functions such as attention, memory, reasoning and problem solving, which contribute to effective communication.

-The Doman Method introduces visual, auditory and tactile stimulation such as flashcards to teach reading, mathematics and general knowledge.

  • Note: Many preschools combine a variety of curriculum. For instance, a religious preschool may incorporate the Multiple Intelligences approach. (Source: www.figur8.net)

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