“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free” - Frederick Douglass
Rotarians and Friends, September is a month when we can think about the reasons why we give such emphasis to basic education and literacy in our work serving humanity. Sometimes, what we think of as self-evident truths, require a review to ensure we have sound reasoning and therefore our efforts can help bring about change.
Now you may have an education background, and then again you may find the following very interesting. Did you know that:
“The brain is the only organ that is not fully formed at birth. During the first three years, trillions of connections between brain cells are being made. A child’s relationships and experiences during the early years greatly influence how their brain grows” [Zero to Three, in its booklet titled ‘Getting Ready for School Begins at Birth’].
So these very early months and years are most important for learning. Many of us in the developed world take learning for granted, but in fact it was not always so. Over the generations parents have been encouraged to read to their child, sing with them and play. But how does an illiterate parent read to their child? And how does the family in poverty afford a book or an education?
And of course there are many other influences; these have been summarized by the Victorian Government in their publication – ‘Making the most of childhood: the importance of the early years’ 2010 – as follows…
Children’s development and learning are affected by:
  • influences within themselves – their genetic inheritance, temperament, gender, and health
  • influences within the family – family relationships, parenting styles and values, the family’s financial situation, parents’ level of education, parents’ occupation, and parents’ physical and mental health
  • influences within the community – children’s services (both availability and quality), support for parenting, housing (both quality and security of tenure), safety and crime in the neighbourhood, unemployment levels and the general feeling of trust among the residents
  • influences within their culture – with different cultures marked by differences in parenting styles, beliefs and values, and different views on how children should be educated.
Rotarians in our District have understood the needs of our communities for many years. And the focus on literacy is often supported from the very beginning, with projects (as recently publicised by the Rotary Club of Wagga Wagga) to give every new-born a book for mum to read to them.
Consequences of failing to effectively improve literacy
Of course, we all recognise that when poverty is involved it is much harder to ensure the necessary early childhood learning practices. In a US study it was concluded:
A large body of research continues to document the negative effects of poverty on children and their later life outcomes. Children growing up in poverty complete less schooling, work and earn less as adults, are more likely to receive public assistance, and have poorer health. Boys growing up in poverty are more likely to be arrested as adults and their female peers are more likely to give birth outside of marriage. [Poverty And Education: Finding The Way Forward by Richard J. Coley and Bruce Baker, 2013 Educational Testing Service, USA].
And then "there is ... research indicating that high crime rates are typically concentrated in small geographical areas characterised by structural disadvantage, including low economic status, poverty, segregation, a high proportion of single parent families, residential instability and a large proportion of racial/ethnic minority groups” [T.Allard, A. Chrzanowski and A. Stewart Targeting crime prevention: Identifying communities that generate chronic and costly offenders quoted in Rethinking Justice - Vulnerability Report 2016, Australian Red Cross].
The importance of this education and literacy therefore starts from the day we are born for that’s when the foundations for the future are laid, and when we begin moving down the path that will take us through childhood, the teenage years and ultimately into adulthood.
The importance of the early years is now well known throughout Australia and the rest of the world. These years are a time when the brain develops and much of its ‘wiring’ is laid down. The experiences and relationships a child has, plus nutrition and health, can actually affect this enormously. Positive experiences help the brain to develop in healthy ways.
Rotary Clubs have been providing important support over many years. And it is emerging now that in our local early childhood learning space – preschools and childcare centres – that children are learning the Wiradjuri language. This development is doubly important as it provides the Aboriginal child with a connection to and validation of their culture, and for the non-Aboriginal child it opens there thinking to understanding diversity and their place in it. The examples of these language practices are evident in Wagga Wagga and Orange, and quite likely in other communities in Wiradjuri country.
So What do children need to support learning in the early years?
They need:
  • adults who help them to stay safe and healthy
  • positive caring relationships that are ongoing - the most important factor in supporting a child’s learning. All children need people, or at least one person, who believe in them, care for them, and want to support them as learners. Children do some of their most powerful learning from copying what people around them do, so it is important that they are with adults who are learners themselves
  • adults who appreciate the uniqueness of each child, and who respect and respond to the child’s feelings, needs and interests
  • help to learn to control their behaviour and patient teaching about what behaviour is accepted
  • opportunities to ‘be in the world doing things’. Children need to be actively involved in meaningful experiences
  • books to look at and read, stories to listen to and people with whom to have conversations. Loving language and books makes a great and strong start to developing a wide vocabulary and literacy skills
  • time to really get involved and build relationships with other children and adults
  • a group experience - this might be a playgroup, a childcare or occasional care centre, a family day care home, a kindergarten program, school or outside school hours care
Information in this Conversation was sourced from:
Getting Ready for School Begins at Birth Zero to Three, Washington, DC.
Making the most of childhood: the importance of the early years, State of Victoria (Department of Education and Early Childhood Development) October 2010