Toronto Star

October 15, 1999

Early start aids learning: StatsCan

Where do day-care kids end up? Top of the class, study shows
HEAD START:Salem Schwai, left, and Warsame Omar, both 3, play yesterday at St. Lawrence Co-operative Daycare in Toronto. A study says they'll have an advantage when they go to school.

By Elaine Carey
Toronto Star Demographics Reporter

Children who are in day-care and other early-childhood programs have a head start in school over those who stay at home with a parent, according to a ground-breaking new study.

By the time they get to kindergarten, the children in programs have better communication, learning and math skills regardless of family income or their mother's education level, says the Statistics Canada study released yesterday. Those benefits last into Grade 1.

Thirty-nine per cent of Canadian children aged 2 and 3 - about 192,000 youngsters - attended some form of early-childhood care and education in 1994-95, when the study began. That included day-care centres, nursery schools and play groups.

When they got to kindergarten two years later, about 40 per cent of them were judged by their teachers to be at the top of their class in communication and learning skills, compared with just a quarter who were not in those programs.

More of them were also able to write a simple sentence, compare numbers and understand simple concepts of time such as ``today,'' ``summer'' and ``bedtime.''

In Grade 1, they were 1.4 times more likely to be rated high in math achievement, even adjusting for family income and the mother's education, according to the analysis of StatsCan data by two University of British Columbia professors.

Reading to children more than once a day also has a substantial impact on their later academic skills, it found.

But day care, nursery school and other pre-school programs have a bigger impact on children's future learning than kindergarten does. The children who were in pre-school programs in 1994-95 did better in Grade 1 than those who were in kindergarten in those years.

The study comes on the heels of Tuesday's federal Throne Speech, which emphasized the needs of children but stopped short of promising any new money for early-childhood programs.

While many other studies have shown the benefits of those programs, ``now they have their own government study saying the same thing,'' said Martha Friendly, of the University of Toronto Centre for Urban and Community Studies. ``That makes it much harder for them to ignore it.''

It ``sends an important message to the federal government on where it needs to invest its money,'' said Mary-Anne Bedard of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care.

``All children should have access to this kind of early-childhood program - the rich, the poor, people whose parents are in the work force and those who aren't,'' she said. ``The social dividends you'll get in the long run will pay off.''

The federal study is the fourth since 1986 to show that early-childhood care and development is a ``very wise investment,'' said Kerry McCuaig, executive co-ordinator of the Child Care Education Foundation.

But a long list of federal excuses, from jurisdictional wrangling to the deficit and the ``over-riding one - a lack of political will,'' has kept a national child-care initiative from happening, she said.

``I'm always surprised that the government doesn't recognize what value there is in having children in a good child-care program,'' said Sally Kotsopoulos, co-ordinator of the St. Lawrence Co-operative Daycare in Toronto.

``There's this perception that all the kids do is play and that play isn't valuable. That just isn't the case.''

The StatsCan study found mothers who have completed high school or higher are more likely to enrol their children in early-childhood programs. Children whose mothers hold a post-secondary diploma or degree are nearly twice as likely to have their children in such programs, compared with those whose mothers did not finish high school.

Similarly, children from households where the total income is $40,000 or more are three times more likely to attend early-childhood programs than those from households with incomes under $20,000.

Reading to a child several times a day overcomes many of the disadvantages of poverty and a mother's poor education.

But the effects are cumulative. A child from a higher income household, with a mother with a higher level of education who was read to several times a day and received early-childhood care, had the highest vocabulary skills of all.

The analysis is part of a larger study following 10,600 children from newborn to 13 through interviews with their parents, teachers, principals and the older children themselves.

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