21st Oct 2015

The Cognitive Benefits of Early Education and Care

The past decades have seen a substantial increase of mothers with young children entering into the workforce. As the number of working mothers increases, the use of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) facilities is also becoming more common. So, as ECEC facilities are being used more and more, I am sure many parents are questioning… is putting my child into care benefitting or hindering their development?

To keep this article short but sweet I decided to limit this article to looking purely at cognitive development. Just to clarify, cognitive development involves thought processes including memory, problem solving and decision making (often used interchangeably in lay terms with “intelligence”). 

So how does ECEC foster a child’s cognitive development?

 If we look at development within the context of some famous psychological theories, it would make sense that being in an ECEC environment would actively enhance a child's cognitive skills. 

The first point to consider is that, social relationships among young children have been widely recognised as being important for cognitive development. Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory says that; children develop best through social interactions whether it be with their peers or their educators. There is an abundance of research that support collaborative learning environments as being beneficial for a child's cognitive development. 

Imagine this as an example: Little Johnny is trying to solve a puzzle that is harder than any puzzle he has done in the past. A child who already knows this puzzle walks over and says “Johnny, do the corner first”. Johnny manages to put the corners in place and then gets stuck again. The other child comes over and says “now you have to do the edges”. Johnny fits the edge pieces in place and sees that puzzle pattern coming together. He manages to complete the centre of the puzzle independently.

These social learning relationships are created frequently throughout a typical day in an ECEC setting. 



It is also important to acknowledge the importance of educators in these settings. Educators are trained to scaffold children’s learning. They have the ability, experience and knowledge in planning and programming that allows them to enhance children’s development both on an individual and group level. They are able to utilise planned and spontaneous experiences, acting as intentional teachers to make beautiful moments educational. Let’s look at another example. 

Johnny is on a role! After completing his puzzle he ventures outdoors where he finds a trail of ants crawling along the floor. An educator sees Johnny bent over the ants. She brings over a magnifying glass.
“May I join you?” she asks Johnny

“Yeah, look there are ants!” Johnny tells the educator

“There sure are! I wonder what the ants are doing” she thinks out loud.

“Umm, I think they are marching with their legs” Johnny says, answering her query.

“Ooo I can see their legs as well. Do you know how many legs they have?” the educator asks.

“I don’t know” Johnny replies.

“How about we count them” the educators suggests handing Johnny the magnifying glass. 

Johnny looks at the ants through the magnifying glass and joins the educator in counting the legs on the ants “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6” they count together. 

In this experience alone, Johnny has been involved in developing a number of different skills. In the cognitive domain, he has been involved in problem solving, mathematics-numeracy (one-to-one correspondence), scientific enquiry (Engaging, exploring and explaining) and more. 

Whilst it is the case that ECEC settings have been shown to positively enhance children’s cognitive abilities, it is important that parents are aware that quality matters. In fact, majority of psychological literature indicates that ECEC quality coincides with marked differences in cognitive skills among children.

So what can we as parents conclude from this? 

There is enough literature supporting childcare as a learning environment that greatly enhances a child’s cognitive skills. So, as a working parent or a parent who puts their child into care because they need a break, you should rest assured knowing that your child is benefiting from being in an ECEC setting. In saying this, your child must be in a childcare centre of good quality in order to see these cognitive benefits. 

What are some things that I should look for?

Good quality childcare centres have natural environments that provide plenty of opportunities for children to develop; friendly, experienced and knowledgable educators; a low child to teacher ratio; a culture of empowering children as learners and educators who encourage children to love learning without forcing them to learn. 

Hope this helped! 



Article references

Azmitia, M. (1988). Peer interaction and problem solving: When are two heads better than one?. Child development59(1), 87-96. doi:10.2307/1130391

Belsky, J., Vandell, D., Burchinal, M., Clarke-Stewart, K., McCartney, K., & Owen, M. (2007). Are there longitudinal-term effects of early child caregiving? Child Development, 78(1), 681–701. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01021.x 

Côté, S. M., Mongeau, C., Japel, C., Xu, Q., Séguin, J. R., & Tremblay, R. (2013). Child care quality and cognitive development: Trajectories leading to better preacademic skills. Child development, 84(2), 752-766. doi:10.1111/cdev.12007 

Greenough, W., & Black, J. (1992). Induction of brain structure by experience: Substrates for cognitive development. Developmental behavioral neuroscience: The Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology, 24, 155–200.

Miyake, A., Friedman, N., Emerson, M., Witzki, A., Howerter, A., & Wager, T. (2000). The unity and diversity of executive functions and their contributions to complex “frontal lobe” tasks: A latent variable analysis. Cognitive Psychology, 41, 49–100. doi:10.1006/cogp.1999 .0734 

Peisner-Feinberg, E. (2004). Child care and its impact on young children’s development. In Tremblay RE, Barr RG, Peters RDeV (Ed.), Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development (pp. 1-7). Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development and Strategic Knowledge Cluster on Early Child Development

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development.Readings on the development of children, 23(3), 34-41.