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How Education Affects Early Child Development

You want your child to have every advantage in life, especially when it comes to his education. Children are born ready to learn, so why wait? During the first few years of your little guy's life, his brain is like a sponge. When he is engaged in enriching activities, he'll make significant strides in physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.

Education in early childhood paves the way for success in school. It not only prepares your child for reading, writing and arithmetic, it also builds his confidence. Whether he's learning at home or in a formal day care setting, the focus should be on sparking interest and curiosity and having fun.

Depends on Quality

"When education and early childhood are paired together, parents often come down on one side or the other -- the only acceptable option is at home with mom, or the only acceptable option is immediate introduction to a formal setting that promotes social and cognitive development. I really don't think it needs to be such a dichotomy, though," says Dr. Katherine Glenn-Applegate, associate professor of education at Ohio Wesleyan University. The simple truth is kids thrive when they are in enriching, stimulating environments with supportive, caring others, and that can happen at home, at a preschool or running errands with grandpa.

"One of my favorite quotes underscoring the need for a loving environment in early childhood education is from a highly-influential developmental psychologist named Urie Bronfenbrenner," says Glenn-Applegate. He said, "…[I]n short, somebody has to be crazy about that kid." This essential component trumps the effects of curriculum and style.

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Increases Social Development

When children are in group settings, they have greater opportunities to develop social relationships with peers, says Tina Lobel-Reichberg, early childhood coordinator and learning specialist at Léman Manhattan Preparatory School in New York City. This early education helps foster an understanding of how children relate to each other. They work together and learn to respect boundaries and limits. They understand the need for routines as they navigate their way around a classroom.

Interacting with other children means learning how to wait, taking turns and listening. Young children learn social skills when they cooperate with other children while building castles or enjoying dramatic play. "These social skills are critical to a developing personality, and I would not dismiss them lightly," says Glenn-Applegate.

Enhances Physical Development

In large-group facilities, children have recess and physical education, notes Lobel-Reichberg. A well-designed educational program for preschoolers includes activities that enhance gross motor skills. Children boost large muscle development through games such as "Simon Says" and "The Hokey Pokey." They learn techniques for running, jumping, hopping, leaping and skipping. Fine motor skills – precursors to handwriting -- are also strengthened. Activities in early education target muscles in the hands and fingers through activities such as sensory tables, sewing cards, building blocks and finger-painting.

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Raises Cognitive Skills

"Education sparks curiosity," says Lobel-Reichberg. It introduces new ideas, skills, concepts and opportunities. Children have a place where they can explore, experiment and work confidently along with peers.

Preschool education is the foundation for academic learning. In preschool your child will listen to poetry and sing songs, and these are the building blocks necessary for grasping phonics and reading skills when they become developmentally appropriate, says Glenn-Applegate. The play that takes place with water, sand and containers creates the groundwork for understanding some basic math concepts. Matching, sequencing and one-to-one correspondence are all activities that are done over and over in early childhood education settings, and they help children get ready to learn academics.

Encourages Critical Thinking

Watching other children pursue a challenging task is beneficial. The presence of other children and a wide variety of materials are two big reasons why a preschool is a good thing, notes Glenn-Applegate. Children learn to become problem-solvers. Questions such as "I wonder which of these balls would roll faster?" or "What should we do differently so the tower won't fall this time?" encourage critical thinking.

Provides Long-Term Benefits

Long-term studies have shown that kids who attend high-quality preschool are more likely to graduate from high school, go to college and land higher-paying jobs. The Abecedarian Project is probably the most well-known study, notes Glenn-Applegate. It showed the the long-term benefits of early education on low-income children. Two other prominent studies are the Perry Preschool Project and the Chicago Child-Parent Study.

Those once-preschoolers are even more likely to own a home and stay married. They are also less likely to be involved in the juvenile delinquent system or need remedial education. They have more optimistic attitudes about school and their futures. The studies have continued for long enough that researchers are starting to study the children of those once-preschoolers.

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