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A Journalist Comments on the Need for Greater Attention to Early Childhood Education (June 30, 2006)

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What a change! In order to be considered a good day care center, it used to be enough to have bright rooms, parent-friendly hours, and pleasant nursery school teachers who didn’t smoke while standing around the sandbox. If organic food was used for meals then even critical college-educated parents were satisfied. In deliberate contrast to the state-run “total care” of little tots in East Germany, undemanding care was offered in the West up to the late 1990s.

Children were not supposed to be separated from their mothers until they were at least three and even then only in the mornings, please. At the same time, the aim was to keep the girls and boys busy enough with games, singing, and arts and crafts to protect them from any and all kinds of education. Numbers and letters had no place in day care centers. For decades, the significance of the pre-school years was “systematically underestimated,” criticized Wassilios Athenakis, former head of the state institute for early education in Munich.

The PISA shock finally brought about a change, and attention was focused not only on schools but also on the years preceding school. It was discovered that, of all things, the country that had invented “kindergarten” – and thereby invented a word that even people in France, England, and Spain understand – had degenerated into a developing country (at least in West Germany) as regards early education. Although all parents have been legally entitled to day care for children three and older since 1996, this mandate generally only applies to four hours in the morning. Only one in three day care centers in the old federal states offers any kind of full-day program. And care for children under three is even worse here. Only three percent of all children in this age group find space in a day nursery.

The training level of staff is also incredibly low. German day care personnel train in vocational schools. In contrast to almost all other European countries, not even the director of a facility in this country needs to have a university degree. In the medical field that would be like letting preschool children be treated by nurses only, since university-trained physicians aren’t necessary for this age group. That is why a career as a day care provider is unattractive to people with a college-preparatory high school degree [Abitur]; and it doesn’t offer much of a professional future even to good students from lower-level secondary schools [Realschulen]. Such paltry training has consequences. “Four seasons education” is what critics call the droning rhythm according which many day care centers operate: the kids make baskets at Easter, glue leaves in the fall, and make Christmas stars in the winter.

New research findings, such as those by Bielefeld teacher Gerhard Friedrich, have a hard time making their way into the everyday routines of day care staff. Friedrich sent day care children to “number land,” where they were supposed to explore the numbers one through ten using fairy tales, games, and music. After only ten hours of directed playful training, these children were a year ahead of their peers in number comprehension. [ . . . ]

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