As Canadians realize the huge learning potential of their very
young children, early childhood education and care programs are
in demand as never before.
"Parents and the public have realized that little kids are
not a blank slate when they get to kindergarten," says Martha
Friendly, co-ordinator for the Childcare Resource and Research Unit,
Centre for Urban and Community Studies, at the University of Toronto.
An early childhood development program "is the foundation
for lifelong learning," she says.
"We cannot afford to postpone investing in children until they
become adults, nor can we wait until they reach school age -
a time when it may be too late to intervene," note Dr. J. Fraser
Mustard and Hon. Margaret Norrie McCain in their paper "The
Early Years: Three Years Later," a follow-up to a report for
former Ontario premier Mike Harris on preschool education.
Across the country, just over 500,000 registered preschool spots
exist for the more than 2 million children aged 5 and younger, 1.5
million with working mothers. Yet Canada has no national early learning
There is some history of recognizing the need - "infant
centres" were established for needy families in the 19th century
and Canadian kids first had access to kindergarten in 1870.
Today, early childhood education and care is in great demand with
double-income families or single working parents, and large numbers
of immigrants who want to integrate their little ones. As well,
there is a growing acceptance that preschoolers benefit from a learning
Some parents are looking to private preschool programs to fill the gap, but
Friendly says opting for an independent school is more about the
child, and less about appearances.
"Canadians are less obsessed with getting ahead, for instance
having their 5-year-olds taking tests to get into the right public
schools, so they can go to the proper high school, and then on to
Princeton or Harvard," Friendly says. "Canadian parents
want a good quality of care and development, not the opportunity
to make the "right" connection or network into the right
Even the dividing line between the concepts of "education"
and "care" has blurred as educators recognize and promote
the development of the whole child. In some cases, kindergarten
is considered early childhood education.
Hugh Burke, headmaster at
Meadowridge School, in Maple Ridge, British
Columbia, judges the school's first-ever junior kindergarten
program a success because "the children have not gone home
clean one day this year. It has varied between dirt, fruit juices
Delivered with a chuckle, his statement underlines
commitment to "developmentally appropriate" programs for
Pre-literacy skills - letter recognition, for instance -
as well as play centres with sand, water and toys, music and dance,
taekwondo, access to computers and the school library are included
in the curriculum for
Meadowridge School's 15 morning and eight afternoon
students. Fees run about $850 a month, and Burke says the school
is ready to begin a waiting list.
At the 100-student Delta West Academy, in Calgary, Alberta, just
10 children age 3 to 5 are in the Early Childhood Services program.
"That's why our structured approach works for them. They're
able to sit down and do their work because I'm there so much
and able to praise and help them," says teacher Jill Pederson
of the small class, which costs $5,000 a year.
The program at Delta West includes pen and paper work. "We
find that, by the end of the year, the younger ones will get jealous
of the big kids. So we teach them to write words like Mom and Dad.
Certainly they're printing their names and certainly they're
sitting for extended periods of time by the end of the year."
Toronto Waldorf School, just north of the city, early childhood
curriculum is based on the teachings of Austrian Rudolf Steiner,
who emphasized "teaching the whole child." The school
runs a once-weekly parents-and-tots group of 10, and two nursery
classes of 12 kids aged 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 for three days each week,
with fees at about $3,500. Junior kindergarten and kindergarten
are also offered.
Stories that explain enduring values, and outdoor play are large
components of Waldorf's early childhood program. "We hear
a lot more from parents that they want their children to be able
to discern, and that's not something that just happens when
they're 15," teacher Sue Martin says.
Toronto French Montessori, preschoolers begin a three-year program
at a ratio of four children to one teacher. Teacher and principal
Marie Mousa says that puts Grade 1 candidates at a Grade 3 learning
"If a child is willing to learn, we don't slow them down.
If they need more time, we can take it," Mousa says. In classes
that combine children age 3 to 6, everything is said in French.
Fees run $8,200 for full-day students, $5,500 for half-days.
In Toronto's west end, Annalisa and David Gorender's
daughters attend Scuola Materna, Italian immersion classes at Leonardo
da Vinci Academy of Arts and Sciences. The only school in Canada
to be accredited by Italy's education ministry, classrooms
are "an extension of the house and the teacher is an extension
of the family," principal Sal Ritacca says. Preschoolers work
in a "quaderno," or workbook, to learn the alphabet, numbers
and small words.
Annalisa Gorender says she realized the value of the school when
her oldest child asked for a pencil sharpener in Italian. "I
didn't understand the word she was using, me who grew up speaking
Italian and who went to school in Italy!"
Fees run about $8,000 at Leonardo da Vinci, which has about 40
places in Scuola Materna, and another 40 in French immersion early
childhood education classes.
Glenburnie School, in Oakville, Ontario, uses group and individual
lessons, as well as games, to teach a 4 preschool and junior kindgergarten
program in a way that makes everything "as fun and exciting
as possible," says Amanda Byrne, teacher and early childhood
"Whether it's tactile, auditory or visual, our teachers
are trained to focus on the skills that promote individual growth
in knowledge," adds Kim Ewing, assistant director at the school.
With 24 preschool and 32 junior kindergarten spots, the school
already has one full class booked for both 2005 and 2006 semesters.
Fees for a full-day, pre-kindergarten class cost about $11,000,
with half days at approximately $6,000.
Booking their unborn child a spot in a respected daycare was a
priority for Yogini and Altaf Walli. The couple enrolled their child
in McMurrich Sprouts Day Care at McMurrich Jr. Public School in
Toronto - where Altaf works as a teacher - when Yogini
was seven months pregnant. "My friends have all been through
this and really encouraged me to be pro-active and find a place
early," she said.
Maureen Myers, executive director at Sprouts, says she has 300
names on her waiting list for early childhood care and development
that focuses on learning by play. "We don"t sit down and
teach by rote or repetition but the ideas and concepts of letter
recognition, language, math and sciences are learned by very hands-on
activities," Myers says.
As for her waiting list, Myers says "it's the biggest
wait list I've heard of. I've been in this field for 25
years and the demand has always exceeded what has been available.
"Right now the demand is the greatest it's ever been.
The majority of families have two parents working - and it's
the norm. Governments haven't quite recognized that."
|What to look for in a preschool
Martha Friendly of the University of Toronto says parents
should take the following into account when searching for
an early childhood program:
- Make sure the school or centre is provincially registered
and adheres to all standards.
- Staff should be trained in early childhood education,
and there should be three staff for every 10 children up
to 18 months, two for every 10 toddlers, and one for every
eight children in preschool classes. "Staff ratios
and qualifications are one of the main factors connected
to quality," Friendly says.
- The environment should be inviting, with a well-maintained,
safe outside play area, nutritious snacks and well-prepared
- Check the hygiene practices for children still in diapers.
- Visit the school or centre and look for children involved
in activities that are interesting and not too rigid. "It
should not be a free-wandering but also not a too-structured
curriculum," Friendly says.
- Look for "play-based, developmentally appropriate
prgrams. To find out what these are, go to a couple of really
good childcare centres and watch what they do," Friendly