What Is Early Childhood Education? 7 Things to Know About the Field Forming Future Generations

Teacher with four early childhood students involved in an activity

Four million children enter kindergarten each fall. The first day of school is nothing short of monumental. In fact, your parents probably commemorated this special day with a photo of you standing with your giant backpack and an apprehensive smile. You may remember nervously boarding the school bus, or perhaps you recall watching your younger sibling embark on their very first day of school.

There’s a good reason for all of these memories: This is a huge milestone in a young life. But it’s far from the start of a child’s educational journey.

From infancy to kindergarten, children undergo an unimaginable amount of growth and development. By the time they’ve walked through the doors of their kindergarten classroom, their brain has already developed 90 percent of its capacity. And early childhood education is a significant contributor to that.

But what is early childhood education, exactly? How does it set children up for a successful life both in and out of the classroom? And what are the repercussions of its absence? Keep reading to learn more about the field, its importance and the role of its dedicated professionals.

7 things you should know about early childhood education

1. The definition of early childhood education

Early childhood education (ECE) is the education of children from birth through age 8, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children. It is during this phase of life that the foundations for cognitive, physical and emotional development are built. This is a period of intense, rapid growth and development, with ECE at the helm for fostering a healthy foundation for life.

Young children generally start learning the basics of walking, talking and naming colors and shapes at home. They often begin learning the alphabet and how to count, which are foundational aspects of academic learning. But early childhood education also allows children the chance to apply what they’ve learned at home in a practical setting, interacting with individuals outside of their family. ECE classrooms offer young children a safe, nurturing environment for interaction, stimulation and social activity.

2. Early childhood education employs millions in the US

There are an estimated 441,000 early childhood educators in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This number does not include those teaching special education.

This critical component of the education system is expected to grow steadily in the coming years, with 7 percent job growth anticipated through 2024. Teaching assistants and childcare workers also work alongside ECE professionals and these positions are also expected to grow at a similar pace.

3. Early childhood education develops minds at the most formative stage of life

Colorful picture of the brainEarly childhood education provides crucial stimulation and guidance during the time in which a child’s brain is forming faster than any other period of life. In the first few years of life, more than a million neuron connections develop each second. These enable different parts of the brain to function and communicate.

This period of rapid proliferation paves the way for a child’s brain development and provides either a strong or weak foundation for all learning later in life. ECE works to challenge, stimulate and nurture the formative early years of life to give children every possible chance for healthy development.

4. There are several different facets of early childhood education

While you may be familiar with the overarching concept of early childhood education, you may not know that it comprises many different approaches and philosophies. Some preschools are constructed around language immersion, allowing young children to cultivate their language-acquisition skills and develop fluency in a secondary language. Other preschools may be faith-based, forming their curriculum around religious content. Preschools and early childhood settings vary from kindergarten in a public school setting to private preschool, child care centers, or home day care.  Salaries in public school settings are generally higher than in private or home child cares.

There are also different types of teaching models for preschool institutions. Montessori education is particularly popular, with a philosophy based on teaching children as individual learners at their own pace. Alternatively, the Waldorf philosophy keeps children on a strict schedule, following the belief that children thrive in predictable and consistent environments. Another common teaching approach called Reggio Emilia bases curriculum on the interests of students, leaving room for spontaneous curiosity and letting creativity guide the teaching.

5. Enrollment in early childhood education is at an all-time high

Enrollment in early childhood programs has increased from 96,000 to over 1 million during the past 30 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This is promising news, considering the benefits of ECE are plentiful and undeniable.

6. There are big benefits to early childhood education

Speaking of benefits, ECE lays the foundation for a lifetime of learning and can have a cascading, positive influence throughout a child’s lifetime. It helps prepare children to reach the appropriate academic level by third grade. Students who fall behind by third grade are more likely to drop out before graduation. And drop-out students are far more likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime, costing unfathomable amounts in lost human potential and contributing to the astronomical cost of prisons nationwide.

Other studies show that high-quality early childhood education programs may lead to higher lifetime earnings of students, a higher likelihood of owning a home, longer marriages, and a decreased risk of requiring special education or repeating grades.

Long-term monetary benefits of early childhood education are plentiful also. It’s been calculated that each dollar invested in early childhood education is returned four to nine times over. This is due to the fact that early childhood programs decrease the need for (and subsequently, the cost of) special education, welfare and incarceration while increasing earnings and tax revenues throughout a lifetime.

7. Early childhood education helps diffuse disparities among children

A number of children entering kindergarten are already behind their peers — academically, socially or even emotionally. Children can enter school a year or more behind, and their learning disparities continue to grow even as they strive to catch up to their peers.

But disparities can emerge much earlier in life. Language skills as early as age 1 and 2 are predictive of a child’s pre-literacy skills at age 5. This shows just how highly influential a young mind can be and helps make the case for implementing ECE programs.

Studies have also shown that by age 3, children from economically disadvantaged families speak 30 million fewer words than those from more affluent families. This critical word gap generally goes on to undermine IQ and academic performance down the road.

Early childhood education can be especially beneficial for children who lack the resources and opportunities of their peers in early life. For children from low-income families and for those at risk for academic failure, early childhood education can be particularly powerful for their development, helping to even the playing field and ensure all children have the chance to build the skills they need to succeed in school and in life.

Early childhood education is essential

So, exactly what is early childhood education?

It’s a chance for children to expand their worlds beyond home life, to develop critical skills through interactive play. It’s a place to nurture young minds in a safe and engaging environment. It’s an opportunity for children to learn more about themselves and how the world works.

The truth is that early childhood education goes far beyond finger painting and story time. This critical component of childhood sets the stage for an entire lifetime.Kids learning with building blocks

Find out more about how you could play a role in this integral industry and inspire a world of good in future generations. Check out our article to learn more: Your 5-Step Guide on How to Become a Pre-K Teacher.