By the age of six, most children are familiar with:

  • size, colour and shape
  • position, direction and time
  • basic numerical concepts of counting and quantity
  • story-telling and narrative. (56,36)

They have:

  • a rich vocabulary
  • a wide range of general knowledge
  • the ability to engage in discussions about events, feelings and activities.
Every child, to be educationally successful, needs a language-rich environment, one in which adults speak well, listen attentively, and read aloud every day. . . . Children who fail to develop adequate speech and language skills in the first years of life are up to six times more likely to experience reading problems in school than those who receive adequate stimulation. (20)

Early childhood is a period of very rapid cognitive development. Rapid improvements in language, number and problem-solving skills reflect remarkable changes that are happening in the brain. These changes are affected by the richness of a child’s experiences and establish millions of neural connections and build the cognitive maps that are part of each newly acquired skill. (53)

Modern research has expanded our understanding of brain development and focused attention on the importance of early life experiences. Among other things, we now understand that:

  • Although basic neural circuits are in place when a child is born, it is stimulation triggered by a child’s experience after birth that enables millions of neurons to make the critical connections that finally program the brain for new skills, including language, memory, and more complex intellectual skills. (11,126)

  • There are certain periods when the brain is more sensitive to certain kinds of sensory signals and is thus more receptive to certain kinds of learning. (11)

This scientific knowledge reinforces what has long been observed – that early childhood experiences are critical building blocks in healthy child development.

We also know that learning is more than isolated experiences triggering neural responses. Children’s learning is a social activity, involving caring relationships with parents, other adults and other children. Children do not learn language by watching television. (11) They learn first by listening to their parents talk to them while they are cuddling or playing. They expand their language skills as they get older by engaging in discussions with people who encourage them to speak and listen, and respond to what they have to say.

Children learn by touching, seeing, smelling, tasting and manipulating things, by playing with toys and interacting with other children, by reading stories with adults, and by discussing events, feelings and activities. (99,33)

Influences on the positive outcome: Appropriate language and learning skills

Stimulating homes

Quality childcare and preschool education


Prepared primary schools

Note: These influences are also listed in the drop-down list above. Please use this menu to navigate within this page.

Stimulating homes

Children’s parents are their first teachers and their homes are their first learning environments. Both the quality of the parent-child relationship and the daily experiences provided by a child’s parents are important to the child’s intellectual development and preparation for starting school. A range of studies have found that the following parental factors are related to children’s cognitive development:

  • encouraging them to use language to describe experiences, seek information and share feelings and ideas (53)
  • reading to them regularly
  • parental involvement with preschool (170)
  • economic resources available in the family (23,65,110,54)

Families need time and energy to provide a stimulating and supportive environment that promotes their children’s development. It takes time and energy to listen, to read and to play with children. It takes time and patience to provide the kind of parenting that helps children learn by doing things for themselves. It takes time and energy to use non-punitive discipline strategies consistently. Less stressed parents find it easier to be supportive and patient with their children. (53)

While studies show that the quality of parenting a child receives is more significant than the level of household income, adequate and secure financial resources can make a difference. Adequate resources help to reduce parental stress, purchase quality child care for working parents, and pay for stimulating toys and recreational activities. Although the effect of income on children’s academic success is not well studied, family economic conditions, particularly in the early and middle childhood years, have been shown to influence achievement, ability and schooling outcomes. (54)


Children’s homes are their learning laboratories. Families are most likely to provide the environment children need to learn if they have good general parenting skills. Parents can establish a learning environment by:

  • Setting high but reasonable expectations and providing support for your children to meet those expectations.

  • Being involved in your children's development and enjoy responding to their need for stimulating experiences that develop vocabulary, general knowledge, communication skills, problem-solving abilities and number skills.

  • Supporting and encouraging your children’s curiosity and exploratory behaviour.

  • Assisting your children as they master new skills and acknowledge their successes.

  • Providing a stimulating physical environment that includes music, books, games, crafts and incentives for creative play.

  • Playing games – cards, board games – with your children that promote a wide range of number and language skills.

  • Helping your children extend their general knowledge by visiting interesting sites or events in the community, reading books and watching and discussing educational television programs.

  • Promoting your children’s language skills by talking with them and listening to them – telling stories, asking open-ended questions or encouraging children to discuss a movie or story.

Investment in schools means investing in the next generation of parents. Age-appropriate classes on human development and family life/human relationships would help prepare young people for their future role. (33)


  • Provide a range of opportunities for parents to develop knowledge about the healthy development of preschool children. These parent support and education opportunities are offered through different community institutions such family resource centres, health clinics, recreation centres, churches and schools.

  • Provide programs that help parents become better teachers for their children, such as You Make the Difference or Parents as Teachers.

  • Provide homevisiting to young families. These programs are generally targeted to families who face a number of social challenges, including low income. They usually begin in infancy, but many continue or start in the preschool years. Hawaii Healthy Start is an example of a homevisiting program.

  • Provide material resources through public libraries and toy lending libraries for parents to use with their children in their homes.

  • Monitor community programs and policies for young children to ensure that families with limited financial resources are able to use public learning resources in the community.

  • Develop special outreach programs to encourage children from families who do not regularly use these services to become involved at an early age.

  • Establish free admission to cultural centres or recreation centres on certain days.

  • Advertise library reading programs to encourage participation by young children and their parents.


The tension between home and work is increasing for many Canadian families. Parents who are stressed and have little time are likely to create less stimulating environments for their children. A very high percentage of parents with children are in the labor force. In fact, 68 percent of families with two working parents have children under the age of five. (232)

Employers can take a number of steps to support families and increasingly see it as in their own interest to develop family-friendly policies since less stressed workers are more productive. When asked what employers are doing that helps ease their stress, mothers and fathers identified the following (232):

Mothers Fathers

provide leave for family reasons:
64 percent

provide leave for family reasons: 50 percent
an understanding supervisor:
53 percent
an understanding supervisor:
40 percent
flexible work hours: 33 percent  
opportunity to work at home:
10 percent
  • Employers can reduce the level of work-family stress by training supervisors to recognize how parenting issues affect employees and to be supportive of the parenting roles of employees. They can also establish policies that allow for flexibility to deal with parenting responsibilities, for example flexible hours, parenting leave and part-time work.

Many mothers would like to work fewer hours, but are unable to do so. Hours of work relate directly to the amount of time parents have with their children, and hence the time they have for activities that promote their cognitive development.

  • Establish policies that allow parents to work flexible hours.

  • Provide an option for part-time work without significant financial or career penalties.

  • Allow time for parental leave to attend to children’s needs. This will help reduce stress and enhance parents’ capacity to provide a stimulating home for their children, while enhancing their productivity in the workplace.

  • Ensure policies related to overtime work – paid or unpaid – are clear, in order to protect parents’ time for their children.


Governments affect the quality of life in individual homes through their social and economic policies. However, they also play a significant role in influencing and shaping public opinion. Governments, together with support from other sectors, can significantly increase public awareness of the importance of the preschool years to healthy child development and of the significant role parents play as their children’s first teachers. Public awareness of these issues is a minimum prerequisite for family-friendly public policies. One such an initiative is the Colorado Task Force on Parent Education and Involvement.

Families with adequate incomes are better able to provide the range of stimulating resources and experiences that contribute to their children’s development. Governments (provincial and federal) through their taxation and income support policies, have a major influence on the economic well-being of families. While discussion of specific policy options are beyond the scope of this resource guide, they can nonetheless have a positive affect on family income through:

  • social transfer programs that help to ensure a basic income for all families either through social assistance or through income supplements to working parents

  • taxation policies that recognize the cost to families of raising children and no longer discriminate against families in which one parent stays home to care for the children

  • longer periods of paid parental leave.

Governments also establish the basic rules of employment through labour legislation. Legislation related to the following would help allow parents to spend more time with their children:

  • a limit to overtime work

  • pro-rated benefits for part-time work

  • annual number of days parenting leave.

Quality childcare and preschool education

Quality child care is care provided by people who are knowledgeable about children’s developmental stages and needs and who provide the kind of stimulating experiences and personal attention children need to further their development. (53) For most children it complements and enhances experiences in their home. For some children it provides basic experiences essential to their healthy development that they would not receive otherwise.

The quality of available child care services is largely unknown as over half of Canadian children in child care are in unregulated services. This reflects both the shortage and the cost of regulated child care spaces. (53)

Quality child care facilities:

  • provide a safe and comfortable environment
  • have adult to child ratios that allow all children to receive some individualized attention
  • employ staff who are well prepared and offer working conditions that encourage low staff turnover
  • encourage parent involvement
  • address all areas of children’s development. (33)

Children who benefit from quality child care are better prepared to start school.

  • They get along better with other children.
  • They experience an easier transition to school and better classroom skills.
  • They have a larger vocabulary when they start school and better language skills in subsequent grades.
  • They perform better on measures of academic readiness when they start school. (53)

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Child care that does not provide sensitive stimulation and positive interaction with the children can have a negative affect on their behaviour, social skills with peers, language development and school skills. (53)

Numerous programs have demonstrated the benefits of quality child care programs to improve the social and cognitive skills of children from poor homes. Well designed programs can have long-term benefits for children. Various programs have shown less grade retention, less placement in special education classes, fewer behavioural problems, lower rates of teen pregnancy, and better school completion rates. These programs are usually combined with a range of other family support services and may be carried out along with other community development efforts targeting many issues in a neighborhood. (288)

Although all well-resourced programs generally show improved outcomes for children, each program needs to be adapted to the specific needs and culture of the community. Program results vary in the intensity and duration of the initiative but, generally, programs that begin when children are under three and are more long term have more enduring results. (53)

Non-parental child care is a necessity for many children. In 1994-95, close to 37 percent of all Canadian children five years of age and under (850,000 children) received some form of regular non-parental child care while their parent(s) worked or studied. (53) Over 45 percent of these children relied on non-relative, unregulated child care. We have relatively limited knowledge about unregulated care situations, but available studies indicate that, in general, they are not as supportive of positive child development as regulated child care centres.

Parents help to ensure the quality of child care outside the home by being involved in choosing and monitoring the care received by their children.

  • Make sure you are informed about the practices regarding learning, play and discipline at your child's centre.

  • Visit a child care setting to observe the kinds of experiences provided for the children before placing a child in that setting.

  • Communicate with the caregivers to help them understand your children's needs and promote their development.

Develop cooperative relationships with local child care and preschool education centres so students can learn about human development and family life.

A range of public and private community-based agencies provide all child care and early childhood education services in most provinces. Although local governments are limited by funding policies of more senior governments, they can help in a number of ways.

  • Monitor the need for various forms of child care.

  • Advocate for increased funding for additional child care spaces.

  • Coordinate information about child care and preschool education to make existing services more easily accessible to parents.

  • Provide financial support to early childhood education groups, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods.

Although a few very large employers have established child care centres for their employees, this is not common. However, employers can support the child care needs of their employees and contribute to enhancing early childhood education services in the community.

  • Provide financial support for families who require child care.

  • Allow parents time to visit their children’s care centre periodically to observe what is happening and discuss their children’s progress.

  • Provide support to parents seeking child care through an employee assistance program or by making information easily accessible.

  • Support preschool education in your community by providing training or buying resources.

In 1994, only 25 percent of children two years or under and 33 percent of children aged three to five years were in regulated child care. Some provincial governments provide a limited number of subsidies for low-income parents, but most parents pay for their own child care. In 1993, the cost of placing a child in full-time regulated child care was between $6,000 to $10,284 per year. Quality child care is labour intensive because of the need for low child to staff ratios.

There is increasing recognition of the importance of quality child care to children’s positive development. However, there has been both a lack of public consensus on how this should happen and a corresponding lack of government commitment.

Governments are significant partners in developing and monitoring regulations which promote quality child care, and in providing financial support to increase the availability of quality child care. As well, governments can support training programs for child care providers, research how the changes in labour force participation are affecting children’s development, and promote public appreciation of the need for and importance of quality child care in the community.

Prepared primary schools

Children’s levels of skill vary considerably when they start school for the following reasons:

  • Rates of maturation vary among individual children.
  • Children come from different cultural backgrounds, some of which have different norms.
  • Children's preschool learning experiences and opportunities differ.
  • Children have different ways of learning and some may have unidentified perceptual challenges to learning.

A real danger for children who do not fit into the expected range of "normal" cognitive skills is that they are negatively labeled and that the label itself becomes self-fulfilling as they proceed through the school system. (54)

To support healthy child development, schools "readiness to teach" is as important as a child’s readiness to learn. (100) This means schools need the capacity to respond to the diversity of skills of children starting school. Studies that look at how certain conceptual understandings evolve in children illustrate how schools can become more adaptable. (35)

Children who come to school with general insights about mathematic respond well to first arithmetic instruction. By the age of four or five, most preschoolers have an intuitive understanding of the following numerical concepts:

  • Each number occurs in sequence and can be assigned to only one object in an array.
  • The order in which items are counted is not significant, but the last number mentioned when counting objects indicates the total number.
  • Relative quantity is understood – bigger or smaller.
  • Changes in quantity through addition or subtraction is understood.

Between the ages of four and six children learn how numbers differ four and five are no longer just big numbers, five is bigger than four. They also develop an understanding of adding and subtracting. As children’s knowledge of counting and quantity grows, it gradually merges into a single knowledge network referred to as a central conceptual structure.

This process involves a change in how children understand this information. It changes from something "out there" to something they can model in their own heads. (36) When children start school they may not have completed the early stages of this sequential process and are unable to comprehend the numerical tasks they are being asked to learn.

Since schools are generally not prepared to diagnose these subtle differences, a child’s difficulty is easily misidentified as a difference in ability rather than knowledge.

  • Get to know the policies and practices of your local schools and advocate for schools that encourage parent involvement in their children’s education.

The increasing number of students being diagnosed with special needs suggests there is a need to examine teaching strategies that emphasize building on children’s skills and helping them be successful. (100) Success in kindergarten and grade one increases a student’s chances for future academic success. This approach would not require schools to reduce academic expectations.

  • Develop more precise diagnostic tools to identify the stage of development of children’s cognitive skills. Establish flexible curricula that can be matched to a child’s stage of cognitive development allowing all children starting school to build on their previous skills.

  • Ensure the approaches to teaching are appropriate to the child’s developmental stage.


Schools have always been in the community, but the interaction between the community and schools has varied enormously.

Establish initiatives that promote communication between schools and communities.
Help schools become more prepared for all children. An example of an initiative that addresses these issues is The School of the 21st Century.

Governments set policy that is implemented by provincial education departments. It is within the scope of provincial governments to encourage approaches that recognize children’s developmental needs in their first year of school and to establish curricula that help teachers build on the current knowledge of child cognitive development.

Aware of any innovative programs, legislation or initiatives that are relevant to this positive outcome?
This is your chance to let us know!

We are always on the lookout for specific strategies proven to be successful (or showing promise), that illustrate work done in this area. After reading this section of the site, click on the icon below and share your ideas.

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