Instead, these environments are now understood as important spaces for learning and development and as such, they represent a strong investment in the future: for children individually, and for our nation’s future.
Scientific, research-based literature, showing the fast pace of brain development in the formative early years, the need for particular experiences to shape neurological development and the links between positive early childhood educational environments and future health and well-being, all highlight the importance of early childhood education.
Play and positive interactions with others and the world around them is how children develop healthy mindsets and wellbeing.
The quality of these environments matters. All high quality early childhood care and education provides important learning environments for children.
So, what is the specific value of attending Kindergartens (or pre-schools)? How do they differ from other early childhood care and education services?
The key difference is in the professional teacher qualification that Kindergarten teachers hold. Qualified early childhood teachers have specific educational expertise that includes their knowledge of effective, appropriate ways of learning and teaching, for example, play-based learning and the ability to extend and use children’s curiosity about the world: these are the benefits that can be found in a Kindergarten environment.
What Kindergarten teachers also add is their knowledge of how children learn – and how to develop learning environments and experiences that are built upon this knowledge. Kindergarten teachers know how to support the foundations of learning. They know how to differentiate their teaching and the learning experiences they facilitate to respond to the needs of individual children.
Qualified Kindergarten teachers also understand the primary school environment and they play an invaluable role in preparing children for their successful transition into school.
As identified in a number of articles written recently about the need for attending a Kindergarten, there have been considerable research findings pointing to quality early childhood learning and teaching impacting on the knowledge, skills and attitudes required to succeed in a school environment.
This preparation does not mean exposing children sooner (possibly damagingly) to highly formal, academic learning and teaching - as anyone who has seen the enabling, playful nature of a kindergarten environment would know.
Environments that encourage and support exploration and positive, engaged and responsive interaction with adults and peers promote learning and relationship building. These are the kind of environments that are created (and co-created with children) in Kindergartens.
Kindergarten teachers know the importance of relationships and understand that pro-social skills and self-regulation are aspects that need to be focussed on and supported in early years’ education.
Teaching is built upon relationships that support children and their families. Partnerships between Kindergartens and families are crucial: these partnerships strengthen family relationships.
So, what are the specific benefits of three year old Kindergarten? Why not simply provide more resources and support for four-year-old Kindergartens?
Research, particularly in the UK but applicable to Australia, suggests that attending two years (at 3 and 4 years old) impacts positively on children’s literacy and numeracy learning, as well as on the development of their social and emotional skills.
These findings link to a longitudinal study (again in the UK) which claims that children who have attended two years of Kindergarten are three times more likely to engage in post-secondary education as opposed to their counterparts who did not attend Kindergarten, or attended for a shorter time-frame.
As Mitchell Institute director, Megan O’Connell has said recently "there is mounting evidence showing that two years of quality preschool helps children thrive in school and later in life."
While subsidising Kindergarten for every three year old and providing crucial educational opportunities is extremely welcome, other aspects and consequences of potential decisions may need to be considered.
There is, for example, the need for increased infrastructures, where the capacities of many Kindergartens are already stretched to the limits. Much has been written about, the difficulties for some parents of finding a space in a Kindergarten for their four year old child.
Other issues that need to be addressed include the reasons for a high turn-over of teachers in child care and Kindergarten settings. Pay and work conditions also need to be addressed.
It is our collective responsibility to ensure that all children, now and in the future, have the same high quality early education opportunities and the best start to life and education that is available. Funding access to three year old kindergarten is an important, evidence-based strategy that is part of that collective responsibility.