Over nearly a half-century of research, some consistent findings about how young children benefit from early learning have emerged.
Early learning improves school readiness: Research looking at children who attend half- and full-day early learning programs before entering Grade 1 has found that they are better prepared for school and, in some cases, more able to control their emotions. One of the most extensively studied programs has been in Tulsa, Okla., where a full-day learning program for four-year-olds has been in place since 1998. Kindergarten children participating in the program were nine months ahead in reading and seven months ahead in writing compared to peers who did not attend the program. The most recent study in Ontario found full-day kindergartners fared significantly better by the end of Grade 1 in their ability to control their behaviour and engage in play-based tasks than their half-day peers, as well as showing better vocabulary skills.
Gains can 'fade out': Are children who are clearly better prepared for Grade 1 also doing better in later grades, or even longer, in life? The two most famous studies in early childhood education, known as the Perry and Abecedarian studies, followed children for decades after they attended two intensive programs in the 1960s and 70s.
In the first, several dozen high-risk three- and four-year-olds living in Ypsilanti, Mich., participated in an intensive, four-year program structured along the lines of a Montessori education. At the age of 40, the kids who had attended the program earned more money and had had fewer arrests. Those findings were replicated a decade later in the Chapel Hill, N.C., study.
More recently, these positive findings have been challenged as having been derived from small, expensive programs that no government can afford to scale up. In 2010, for example, about 2,500 kids who had not participated in a Head Start program were found to have caught up to those who did by the end of the first grade. And when it came to alphabet knowledge, counting and number tasks, and writing a sentence by the end of the first grade, there were no significant differences between children in Ontario who attended two years of full-day kindergarten and those in the half-day program.
Gains are greater for vulnerable children…: Investing in at-risk children has been shown to reduce drug addiction, high-school dropout rates, teen pregnancy and imprisonment. The policies that show the best returns don't end at 3:30 p.m. Instead, they add home supports and health checks to the school-based program.
… but all children benefit from early learning: If vulnerable children have the greatest benefits from early learning, why not just invest in targeted programs? Not only are children with vocabulary lags or emotional issues found in all families, including high-income households, but middle-class children show vocabulary, reading and emotional development scores that are lower than those from the highest incomes. In fact, according to the Ontario government, as many as a quarter of children from middle-income households show at least one academic or social risk factor.
Early learning or early play?: A Save Childhood Movement in the United Kingdom has railed against government efforts to test the academic abilities of children as young as four and to emphasize the three Rs. Defenders of the importance of learning through play say that stronger academic gains in later grades could be achieved by better integrating curriculum between kindergarten and primary school.