The education and care of children of pre-schooling age is growing in importance as an industry, now that more women are being encouraged to return to the workforce after having children, and fewer families can spare one parent to stay home to nurture the kids' academic, psychological and social growth.

Also, with parents now being generally more educated, sophisticated and competitive, is becoming increasingly important to them to know that from the time they send their little daughters and sons to kindergartens, pre-school centres and child-care centres, their all-round development will be guided by well-trained professionals.

Those who work in the childcare/early childhood industry know very well that teaching pre-schoolers requires more than a fondness for children. A knowledgeable teacher understands the physical, language, cognitive and social developmental stages that children go through, and can create an environment conducive to learning.

While any responsible parent is able to guide a child a great deal in many areas, a trained early childhood educator would know how to create the best learning environment, apply child psychology and consistently lay a foundation for a good lifelong attitude towards learning.

In addition, young children, from birth to the time they enter primary school, are at an especially crucial stage of development. They are learning not only mental and academic skills like numeracy and proper use of language, but also developing their motor skills, fine-tuning their senses and emotions, and making their first discoveries about social interactions with people beyond the immediate family.

Caring for and teaching little ones

A caregiver or educator of young children therefore has a different role from that of a primary or secondary school teacher. He or she must know about the stages of development of young children, to know what is mentally and physically normal and possible for infants and toddlers of different ages.

They should know at what stage a baby can be expected to be capable of focusing his eyes on an object, what the normal age range is for a child to be able to pull herself into a standing position, or walk unaided.

When is a child first capable of perceiving depth and height and understanding their implications? At what age does a baby realise that two objects cannot occupy the same physical space? What is to be expected when interacting with children and their parents from a range of cultural backgrounds?

These and many other developmental details are essential knowledge for anyone serious about forging a career in childcare, pre-school education, or child psychology, running a kindergarten or playgroup, or working with special-needs children.

Without knowing what a child of a certain age should be capable of doing, educators and caregivers will neither be able to give them the best stimulation for steady growth physically, mentally and socially, nor know when to recommend early intervention in special-needs cases.

Specialised tools

Early childhood educators must also understand how best to use various tools to bring out the best in their wonder-filled charges. Toys, play facilities, suitable books, and specialised educational games can help children experience various facets of learning and express specific abilities that simple play may not elicit so efficiently.

Different teaching methods may emphasise different kinds of learning and teaching tools. Each child-education philosophy may also encourage its own kind of physical set-up and layout of facilities in the childcare centre or pre-school, in accordance with its teaching methods.

Early childhood educators must thus learn what the emphases and variations are among different methodologies, and be trained to use the appropriate ones depending on which philosophy is used by the school or centre he or she is working in.

Managing facilities and staff

Another facet of a career in early childhood education involves management responsibilities. This is a particularly important area for individuals who aspire to own or run childcare or pre-school centres, or become kindergarten principals.

Besides a thorough understanding of children's developmental needs, such individuals must also acquire the leadership, managerial and administrative skills necessary for managing the staff, planning curricula, overseeing the setting-up and maintenance of the facilities, and running the business well.

People in these positions also need to be aware of how their school or centre may have an impact on the environment, and ensure that they engage in good practices in all areas ranging from business transparency and consideration for residents living nearby, to safety concerns and environmental awareness in the purchasing, use and disposal of food and equipment.