Inspired by international research on the brain development of children between infancy and three years, the Early Education Center at Qatar Foundation is extending primary education to children as young as six months old.
Nurseries, traditionally understood, are places where young children and babies are taken care of when their parents cannot afford the time to do the same. They are temporary spaces of shelter where people who have not developed the mental and physical capacities to supervise themselves receive that supervision from others.
Early educational centers, on the other hand, also serve the same infant audience as a traditional nursery, but instead of just satisfying the infants’ most basic necessities, they place a greater importance on extending primary education to children as young as six months old.
According to Jo Ellis, Assistant Principal at the Early Education Center of Qatar Foundation (QF), the learning environment provided by these facilities is inspired by international research on the brain development of children, especially the growth period between infancy and three years of age.
“Research has shown that the more engagement and interaction that children have within learning environments from the earliest age, the greater impact there will be upon their lifelong learning,” stated Ellis.
But “engagement and interaction” alone does not distinguish an early education center from a nursery. So what does exactly?
Speaking about the methodology upon which QF’s Early Education Center is built, Gillian Gunay—a key figure in the program’s development—explains: “We eventually decided on utilizing the Reggio Emilia approach: an educational philosophy founded in Italy that aims to teach children to express themselves by encouraging curiosity and creativity.”
Curiosity and creativity, in other words, are at the heart of these educational institutions, so much so that the Early Education Center runs completely on the “Creative Curriculum,” a research-based program aimed at cultivating inquiry, attentive engagement, and independence in children.
“It's very much about learning through environments that provoke the children’s thinking,” Ellis added, highlighting a crucial difference between nurseries and early education centers. “This type of teaching is highly sensory in terms of the experiences we provide; everything is about children having the ability to explore new activities in new environments.”
The Reggio Emilia approach is essentially shaping society's view of children, and their importance within society—that they are citizens who contribute to a community. Those initiatives have driven a lot of thoughtful practices in early childhood education.
During the course of each day, children enrolled under the Early Education Center program may spend time learning independently, one-on-one with a teacher, or with a small group facilitated by a teacher. “The most important skills that we teach are social and emotional, and we help the children to express their feelings and communicate from an early age,” said Ellis.
The shortcomings of such philosophy, however, were already anticipated by the visionary behind QF’s Early Education Center, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of QF, who understood that absolute independence in formative years may deprive children from a strong sense of language and national identity.
“The first proposal of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser highlighted that the center should support the mother tongue language of Qatar,” said Reem Salem, Arabic and Islamic Coordinator, Early Education Center.
“If children don’t have a strong mother tongue language, they will likely have problems when they begin to learn their second or third language in life. That’s why it was important that the center provided a strong program for students to learn both Arabic and English.”
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Therefore, the ‘Creative Curriculum’ is grounded within the principle of providing an integrated approach to language, with each classroom taught simultaneously by an Arabic-speaking teacher, English-speaking teacher, and a teacher’s assistant.
“With the integration model in early years, our students have the balance between the international-mindedness, the Qatari identity, and their mother tongue,” explained Taghreed Al Mansoori, Assistant Principal, Primary School, Qatar Academy Doha.
“Our first challenge has always been to emphasize to parents that we are not a daycare center or a nursery; we are an early educational center. Building that understanding is not something that happens overnight, but it is something that will happen over time through results.” Salem explained.
Essentially, what the staff and administration at the Early Education Center want families and the community to understand about their work is that education does not have to officially begin in primary school, with everything preceding it merely providing daycare services.
Instead, early education can involve children from as early as infancy and pull the education cycle behind to extend the benefits of learning to the youngest members of society. “The most amazing aspect of this approach to education is that students who graduate from our high schools at 18 years of age can now enter at six months old,” Ellis remarked.
“The Reggio Emilia approach is essentially shaping society's view of children, and their importance within society—that they are citizens who contribute to a community. Those initiatives have driven a lot of thoughtful practices in early childhood education.”