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The first thousand days in the life of a young child is a time of tremendous potential and enormous vulnerability. This unique period opens a window of opportunity for a young child’s brain, body, and immune system to grow and develop optimally. Research in the fields of neuroscience, biology and early childhood development provide powerful insights into how nutrition, relationships and environments shape future outcomes.
Infancy is a time for remarkable brain development where the baby learns to communicate with the world around her and together with responsive relationships, safe and nurturing environments to explore and good nutrition all provide the essential building blocks for a child’s cognitive abilities, motor skills and socio-emotional development which will ultimately influence future success in school and economic opportunities later in life. In essence, how mothers or caregivers provide and care for their infants has a profound impact on a child’s ability to grow, learn, and thrive.
When it comes to giving infants the healthiest start to life, breastfeeding is unmatched; it acts as the infant’s first vaccine packed with antibodies, stem cells and other unique properties. The World Health Organisation and the American Academy of Paediatrics recommend that for the first six months, infants be exclusively breastfed. The sense of touch is the first sense to form at around eight weeks where the infant is comforted by the feel of her mother touching her skin and responds to this sensation with a grasp reflex curling her tiny fingers around the mother’s and gripping them. Research informs us that young children learn best in environments where responsive, engaging learning opportunities and secure relationships are provided with caring and receptive adults. By the age of five, the child’s brain reaches approximately 90% of an adult’s brain. Throughout the early years and beyond, the brain forms neural connections that allows brain cells to communicate with one another, including connections in the brain’s language areas.
School is Life
The Reggio Emilia approach founded by the erstwhile charismatic leader, Loris Malaguzzi has been recognised and acclaimed as one of the best educational approaches in the world (Newsweek, December 2, 1991). This approach supports and fosters early childhood development and affirms that school is not preparation for life but that school is life. The educational journey is one that unravels organically; slowly and gradually. The relationship-driven environment is deemed as the third teacher where children thrive in experiential learning opportunities which are aligned to their interests and developmental stages. Loris believed that children from birth are not empty vessels that need to be filled as they have the ability to express themselves in a Hundred Languages which are symbolic and include drawing, sculpting, dramatic play, writing and painting and more. He describes these languages as the infinite ways that children can express, explore and connect their thoughts, feelings and imaginings.
The ability to develop their own potential
The philosophy was borne shortly after WWII when working parents were looking for child care for their children aged six months to six years, one that would foster critical thinking and collaboration skills. Loris joined in the effort and in 1963 Reggio Emilia, a small city in northern Italy, opened its first municipal preschool. According to Dr Carol Brunson Day, the first school was financed by selling a tank, nine horses and two military trucks and was built by stone, sand and timber gathered by the villagers. The Reggio Emilia inspired approach to teaching and learning is led by the child’s curiosity, connection to the world around them and the belief that children have the ability to develop their own potential. The child is beheld as beautiful, powerful, competent, creative, curious, full of potential and ambitious desires (Hewitt, Valarie 2001. Early Childhood Education Journal).
Learning through Play
A recent study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed that 40% of 4 500 five years old children in England and Estonia stated that play was their favourite part of the school day. Children learn through play, which is driven by the child’s interests, questions and the world in which they live. The Reggio Emilia approach further highlights that exploration and play are inquiry-based, flexible, and promotes a love of learning. Children have a choice of purposeful materials readily available for them to explore in meaningful ways. Opportunities are afforded for children to create their own play which promotes independence and creative thinking. Social interactions develop and relationships with peers are fostered from an early age as children engage in their own play. Emergent Language, Mathematics and Science knowledge, skills and attitudes are developed, while art and creativity encourage delving deep in the expressive arts. Nature too finds its way in many play scenarios and explorations, while the culture of others is discovered in meaningful ways.
The strength of collaboration
An inspired Reggio Emilia school ensures that the environment is welcoming, authentic, aesthetically pleasing and culturally representative of the community. The layout of the environment promotes creativity, thinking and problem-solving skills, questions, experimentation and open-ended play. Teachers, parents and the child are viewed as collaborators as the true strength of collaboration does not rely on the knowledge of one expert. Parents are essential resources in their child’s learning and the exchange of ideas amongst parents, teachers and children is vital in creating a positive and productive learning environment. Teachers, whilst maintaining their professional ‘distance’ are active participants within the community and provide community members with information and updates of occurrences in the school. Parents are invited to participate in a number of family events, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Day of Love, Grandparents’ Day, Book Character Day, Heritage Day to mention a few. A weekly newsletter, A Week at a Glance is shared with every family making learning visible. Photographs supplemented by documentation highlighting the week is shared with parents, giving them an overview of their children actively engaged in school experiences both indoors and outdoors.
The cornerstone of the Reggio philosophy is an image of a child as a strong, competent and naturally curious protagonist who has rights rather than needs. A culture of dialogue and research embraced by the approach promotes the joy of learning, the pleasure of inquiry as children co-construct their own learning in a caring, nurturing and supportive environment. The approach scaffolded by the essential building blocks during the first thousand days will shape a child’s cognitive and socio-emotional development, which will surely set them on a path of future happiness and success.