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Why crayons count

Published:Wednesday | April 11, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Morrison
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Deika Morrison, Contributor

The Early Childhood Act (2005) defines an early childhood institution (ECI) as 'a setting that provides developmentally appropriate care, stimulation, education and socialisation, for children under the age of six years, including day-care centres and basic schools'. By its own legislation, the Government has mandated that an early childhood institution is a suitable environment for development, not just a building.

Indeed, the act and regulations articulate detailed requirements of such a 'setting' and calls for at least twice yearly inspections by the Early Childhood Commission (ECC), the government body responsible for the supervision and regulation of early childhood institutions.

According to inspection reports posted on the ECC website, while institutions are making great efforts, not one has met the 12 ECC standards that characterise 'developmentally appropriate care, stimulation, education and socialisation' - 1) staffing 2) developmental and educational programmes 3) interactions and relationships with children 4) physical environment 5) indoor and outdoor equipment, furnishing and supplies 6) health 7) nutrition 8) safety 9) child rights, protection and equality 10) interactions with parents and community members 11) administration and 12) finance.

By definition, a 'failure' is the fact of not meeting required standards, but we don't call these institutions failures, we say they haven't met standards.

Severe issues

It is not surprising that institutions don't meet the standards. After all, the sector is severely under-resourced and receives the least amount of support from the Government of any level of education. By law, the ECC can recommend closure for institutions that don't meet standards. That is not a practical solution for the hundreds of thousands of Jamaican children who would have nowhere to go. When we examine the practical implications of not meeting standards, the necessary solution is to provide support for the institutions so that they can meet the standards.

What is the practical implication of not meeting standards? Let us just take one for an example - Standard 2: Developmental and Educational Programme. As per Early Childhood Regulation 18, institutions are mandated to develop a 'daily educational programme plan' completed with 'varied choices in material and equipment'.

According to ECC documents, this standard means that "early childhood institutions have comprehensive programmes designed to meet the language, physical, cognitive, creative, socio-emotional, spiritual, cultural and school readiness needs of children".

In plain English, this standard speaks to the heart of what we expect schools to provide - knowledge and development. Yet, the inspection reports tell us that institutions are not meeting this standard. These institutions may not be 'failing', but the implication of not meeting standards is that children themselves could actually fail.

Let us take just one indicator of Standard 2: learning resources. Inspection reports commonly state: "there is not enough material available for the development of fine and gross motor skills" and require classrooms to be equipped with "more and varied types of books", "developmentally appropriate toys", "materials for fine motor skill-development activities" and "a variety of equipment for the development of the children's gross motor skills". Simply put, children do not have access to the specific developmental resources they need.

What are appropriate materials? The ECC has identified 13 items critical to gross and fine motor development, as well as literacy, numeracy and socialisation: books, crayons, balls, blocks, paper, puppets, play dough, scissors, puzzles, glue sticks, paint, paintbrushes and manipulatives. These are the items that the campaign, Crayons Count!, seeks to provide to every early childhood institution across Jamaica.

Why are these resources so important? Books build literacy and vocabulary skills, as well as decision-making and problem-solving skills. Blocks build understanding of physical space and hand-eye coordination while building math and science concepts such as shape, size, length, symmetry, gravity, balance and cause and effect. Puzzles and manipulatives also promote hand-eye coordination while building critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Puppets help children to learn life lessons, manners and values.

Throwing, catching, rolling and kicking balls are essential physical activities that promote health and encourage teamwork while developing gross motor skills. Crayons, scissors, glue sticks, paints, paintbrushes and play dough are critical arts and crafts items that help with fine motor skills development and mental development.

Creativity and imagination

They foster creativity and imagination in children who are actively engaging their minds and building self-esteem and confidence. They provide an emotional release for children to express ideas or experiences they haven't yet developed the language skills for. They encourage sharing and social skills. Crayons are so special that they help children develop the pencil grip necessary for writing, while allowing for self-expression.

The research is clear: children who get good care, are highly socialised and receive quality stimulation during the early years are healthier, get along better with others and do better in pre-school, primary and high school and later in life.

In the most critical formative years of a child's life, the lack of access to appropriate learning material and stimulation impedes development and makes children unprepared to learn when they arrive at primary schools.

Unless critical interventions are made to support early childhood institutions, these inspection reports will always report inability to make standards which, in reality, means that our children are not being adequately prepared to avoid failure.

Deika Morrison is founder of Do Good Jamaica and managing director of Mdk Advisory and Consulting Ltd. Send feedback to deika@dogoodjamaica.org