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For programming purposes, it has been decided to extend the concept of early childhood to about 8 years of age. This age range provides the opportunity to reinforce the view of the development as a continuum. It will facilitate the interaction between the pre and initial school years. The concept of basic education calls for the inclusion of early childhood and the key "survival" grades, that is, the first two or three grades of primary education.
Early childhood education often focuses on children learning through play, based on the research and beliefs of Jean Piaget. This belief is centered on the "power of play". It is thought that children learn more efficiently and more knowledge when given the opportunity for play based activities such as: dramatic play, art and social games. This theory plays off of children's natural curiosity and tendencies to "make believe", mixing in educational lessons.
According to UNESCO ECCE (Early Childhood Care and Education) Unit, Early childhood is defined as the period from birth to 8 years old. A time of remarkable brain development, these years lay the foundation for subsequent learning.
The terms preschool education and kindergarten emphasize education around the ages of 3–6 years. The terms "early childhood learning," "early care," and "early education" are comparable with early childhood education. The terms day care and child care do not embrace the educational aspects. Many childcare centers are now using more educational approaches. They are creating curricula and incorporating it into their daily routines to foster greater educational learning. The distinction between childcare centers being for care and kindergartens being for education, for example, has all but disappeared in countries that require staff in different early childhood facilities to have a teaching qualification. The ChildForum early childhood education national organisation highlights that while this can uplift the overall quality of children's learning a primary purpose of all early childhood programmes is nevertheless to provide a high standard of care and nurturance due to the young age and emotional and physical needs of children. However, it is necessary to distinguish between nurturance and locomotive learning. One implies the development of vestigial implements of characterized babies, the other refers to hand-eye co-ordination.
Researchers in the field and early childhood educators both view the parents as an integral part of the early childhood education process. Often educators refer to parents as the child's first and best teacher. Early childhood education takes many forms depending on the beliefs of the educator or parent.
Much of the first two years of life are spent in the creation of a child's first "sense of self" or the building of a first identity. This is a crucial part of children's makeup—how they first see themselves, how they think they should function, how they expect others to function in relation to them. For this reason, early care must ensure that in addition to employing carefully selected and trained caretakers, program policy must emphasize links with family, home culture, and home language, meaning caregivers must uniquely care for each child using Developmentally Appropriate Practice, Individually Appropriate Practice and Culturally Appropriate Practice. Care should support families rather than be a substitute for them (see a review of research on the role of parents and families in early education)
If a young child doesn't receive sufficient nurturing, nutrition, parental/caregiver interaction, and stimulus during this crucial period, the child may be left with a developmental deficit that hampers his or her success in preschool, kindergarten, and beyond.
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Worst-case scenarios such as those found in Russian and Romanian orphanages demonstrate how the lack of proper social interaction and development of attachment affect the developing child. Children must receive attention and affection to develop in a healthy manner. While in developed nations today such scenarios are fortunately rare there is a danger of a false belief that more hours of formal education for the very young child = greater benefits for the young child than a balance between formal education and time spent with family. A systematic review of the international evidence suggests that the benefits of early childhood education come from the experience itself of participation and that more than 2.5 hours a day does not greatly add to child development outcomes especially if this means the young child is missing out on other experiences and family contact.
There are five different developmental domains of children which all relate to each other. They are easily referred to as the SPICE of life:
- Social - Refers mostly to the ability to form attachments, play with others, co-operation and sharing, and being able to create lasting relationships with others.
- Physical - Development of Fine (small) and Gross (large) Motor Skills.
- Intellectual - The process of making sense of the world around them.
- Creative - The development of special abilities creates noteworthy talents. Music, art, writing, reading, and singing are some ways for creative development to take place.
- Emotional - Development of self-awareness, self-confidence, and coping with feelings as well as understanding them.
- Cognitive Development - According to Jean Piaget, there are four major stages of cognitive development :
- Sensorimotor Stage. This stage occurs between the ages of birth and two years of age.Sensorimotor (infancy): During this stage, which includes six distinct substages, intelligence is demonstrated through motor activity with limited use of symbols, including language; the infant’s knowledge of the world is primarily based on physical interactions and experiences.
- Preoperational Stage. The second stage occurs between the ages of 2 – 7 years. During this stage, intelligence is increasingly demonstrated through the use of symbols; memory and imagination are developed as language use matures; thinking is nonlogical, nonreversible, and egocentric.
- Concrete Operations Stage. Occurring between ages 7 and about 12 years. During this stage characterized by conservation of number, length, liquid,mass, weight, area, volume intelligence is increasingly demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols relating to concrete objects; thinking is operational, reversible, and less egocentric.
- Formal Operations Stage. The final stage of cognitive development (from age 12 and beyond). During this final stage, intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts; thinking is abstract, hypothetical, and early on, quite egocentric; it is commonly held that the majority of people never complete this stage.
- Emotional Development - Concerning children's increasing awareness and control of their feelings and how they react to these feelings in a given situation.
- Social Development - Concerning the children's identity, their relationships with others, and understanding their place within a social environment