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 strategy.
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 preschool 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 environment.
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 five-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 good quality of care and development, not the opportunity to make the right connection or network into the right school."
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, says 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 and paint."
Delivered with a chuckle, his statement underlines Meadowridge School's commitment to developmentally appropriate programs for preschoolers.
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 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."
At the Toronto Waldorf School, a Waldorf school in Toronto, Ontario, the preschool 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.
At Toronto French Montessori, kids begin a three-year preschool 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 level.
"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. Preschool costs 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 kindergarten program in a way that makes everything "as fun and exciting as possible," says Amanda Byrne, teacher and early childhood education co-ordinator.
"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.
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."
Martha Friendly of the University of Toronto says parents should take the following into account when searching for an early childhood program:
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