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Uncovering myths of early childhood education

In Singapore today, our educational priorities for children are overshadowed by what we deem to be more progressive and advanced needs – academic learning and test taking.

In Singapore today, our educational priorities for children are overshadowed by what we deem to be more progressive and advanced needs – academic learning and test taking.

In our anxiety to give our children the best chance of a bright future, we focus on the narrow goals of academic learning and preparation for school rather than preparation for life.

For those trying to navigate the sea of parenting and educational advice, the answers to these two questions are important: What do we actually know about young children as learners and human beings and what can we do to revise some urban myths about what young children need from us?

Evidence suggests that young children, babies included, are more motivated and attuned to learning than given credit for.

Here, we outline what scientists are learning about how babies are naturally capable of learning and thinking, often in self-initiated ways.


The brain is the control centre for all our feelings, thoughts, and actions. For decades, scientists have been experimenting with different methods to learn more about this very complex organ and how it works.

Cognitive scientists have now gathered sufficient evidence for a key finding about how the human brain develops – from the moment of birth, infants are learning about themselves and what they are experiencing even though the size of an infant’s brain is only about 25 per cent of an adult brain. Despite being small, a baby’s brain is functioning at twice the rate of the average adult brain. Babies use more regions of their brain to make sense of the world around them, partly because it’s new to them and they are eager to figure things out.

For babies, everything in the world is brand new and everything about their own bodies is a mystery to them. However, we know that babies do not just passively absorb information when they learn, they are constantly observing, generating hypotheses and connecting lots of dots.

Each time you peer into the crib, remember that the baby is also staring back at you to gather data and to make sense of that moment in relation to other moments that happened a few hours or days ago. Similarly, when young children play, they are actively experimenting and using those results to develop a causal map of the world around them or to change the way they think.

This is what “learning” is all about. As humans are adaptable to change, young children learn about people and about themselves, which can change their beliefs, desires, feelings, motivations and interests.

A baby’s brain is more highly connected and attuned to discover, imagine and create, while an adult’s brain is more efficient because of the filtering process that occurs in middle childhood.

Evidence in cognitive science suggests that children, before their second birthday, are hard-wired to learn by exploring; they can exercise their imagination and sharpen their problem-solving skills; and very young children do develop a sense of fairness, sympathy for others and understanding goals.


With our current understanding of how ingenious and capable young children are, what do we do about nurturing these strengths to ensure they thrive in an uncertain future? Let’s unpack some of the urban child-raising myths found in Singapore.

Myth 1: Genes determine our future

The short scientific response to this myth is “no.”

Genes may provide the blueprint for the formation of brain circuits, but the brain also has the ability to modify itself in response to experiences from birth and through adulthood. Brain development is integrated with emotional well-being and social development, as well as being the foundation for language learning and higher-level thinking skills.

All-round development in those early years (i.e., physical, emotional, social, cognitive and linguistic) is, therefore, important for later success in school, workplace and community and this is highly dependent on what the adults around the young child say and do, rather than determined by the family’s socio-economic status or parents’ education levels.

Brain wiring is nurtured when adults respond and interact with infants. For example, a baby left lying for hours on her/his back with no stimulation or human interaction can experience higher than usual levels of stress. Sustained stress harms areas of the brain that are dedicated to higher-order skills and could lead to lifelong challenges in learning, behaviour, and physical and mental health.

Myth 2: There are limited time periods for learning to take place

The scientific response to this myth is closer to “no” than “yes.”

Marketers of early learning programmes for babies often exploit the so-called “critical periods” or “sensitive periods” to make us feel compelled to help babies read before it is too late. However, neurologists have found that very few brain structures require such restricted time periods for neural sculpting to take place because the brain is capable of continuously learning and practising new skills as long as there is a will to learn.

Myth 3: Play is a waste of time and could pose unnecessary risks

The scientific response to this is “no.”

When young children play they engage their whole body and enjoy themselves. This type of active play has benefits for healthy brain growth. When playing, children learn how to regulate behaviour and emotions, become physically healthy and quite adept and controlled at using a range of motor skills (e.g., walk on different surfaces, run at different speeds, jump, climb, throw, bend, catch, push, pull, carry, twist, fold, cut, balance). Researchers have found that healthy physical development is not guaranteed through natural maturation, at least not in urban environments. Instead, the development of motor and sensory skills in children depends upon their environment and what adults choose to have them do. If we are constantly hovering over children, afraid that they will fall or graze themselves, they will sense our fear and anxiety, and not be willing to take risks during playtime. If they are unwilling to take risks through play when they are young, when will they develop enough practice to take greater risks later in life?

Indeed, evidence suggests that physical activity in the early years doesn’t just enhance a child’s physical fitness, it increases her/his attention span and improves concentration and focus, an important skill for school and for life. In contrast, studies also show that three-year-olds who are not encouraged to move about and engage in physical activity are likely to become obese in later childhood and as adults

Myth 4: It’s the 21st century! We need new products and technologies to prepare children for the future

The current scientific response is “no.”

Consider basic research evidence on two readily available child-raising products in the market (available on CDs, DVDs and mobile applications):

Mozart Effect

The original research had very narrow findings because the researchers had conducted their study with university-aged students and these researchers never made any claims that listening to Mozart made people smarter. In the study, the students that listened to Mozart performed better on a spatial reasoning test but the improvement effect was temporary and wore off after 15 minutes.

Baby Einstein

This set of videos has been marketed as a way to introduce babies to different sights and sounds. In “Baby Wordsworth,” for instance, a group of 30 words is highlighted in the video for babies to learn. At the end of six weeks, researchers found no difference between babies that watched the video and those that did not. In fact, they found that the younger a baby started watching a Baby Einstein video, the lower his/her language scores. This is not surprising because passively watching a screen does not activate much brainwork. A baby’s brain is wired to grow and learn by interacting with people and manipulating objects around them.

Baby Einstein and Mozart Effect are but two examples of edutainment aimed at address¬ing parents’ fears of under-development in very young children. Together with flashcards and other products, they contribute to the emergence of the most recent billion-dollar baby market.

The findings of The Early Childhood Parenting Landscape Study (ECDA 2014) in Singapore revealed that 36 per cent of parents enrolled their children in enrichment classes and more than 80 per cent used technology with young children.

Raising a successful child in today’s world does not require special technology, toys or other products because we know that the brain is a social organ thriving on basic human communication and daily social experiences – conversations, stories, gestures, demonstrations, walks, hide-and-seek, doing things together, holding the lift door for a neighbour, helping granny with her grocery bag, exchanging words of encouragement.

Children’s brains are built on an accumulation of these many mundane moments each day. While toys and tablets have a place in children’s lives, they play a supporting role in parenting and educating.

Myth 5: Children must be taught explicitly how to learn

The scientific response to this is more “no” than “yes.”

While some skills in life require some explicit teaching from adults (e.g., handling tools and equipment, social manners), a child’s brain is primarily shaped by social interactions and self-initiated explorations and discoveries. They don’t need adults to be overly-directive.

When children think they are being taught, they are more likely to reproduce what the adult has told her/him because it must be the right technique and there’s no point trying something new. This is the danger of explicit teaching. We discourage a child from trying things out and getting things wrong.

Young children need to learn independence in all areas of their daily life as soon as possible. If we keep spoon-feeding, carrying them or putting them in strollers when they are able to walk, they become overly reliant on adults to do everything for them.

Similarly, they need to learn to exercise choice, take risks and learn from their mistakes early in life so that they have sufficient practice by the time they need to make more complex decisions or solve problems.

The irony of urban life is that while parents have less time to spend with their children, they have more money to spend and hence, are in danger of over-structuring a child’s learning and development.

Over-structuring a young child’s learning is unhealthy in the long run if we want to develop a thinker, and a responsive and responsible citizen.

Babies are born motivated to learn, to move and are naturally imaginative and logical thinkers. It’s certainly unfair and unwise to straightjacket a child’s mind into the narrow confines of the traditional 3Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic).

It’s certainly too late to only encourage critical and creative thinking in their teens having spent years not practising those mental processes. If young children are curious about what’s around them and how

things work, we must support that curiosity and build on what’s already on their minds even if they have limited language.

玉不琢,不成器。人不学,不知义。(yubuzhuo buchenqi; renbuxue buzhiyi) – this is a Chinese saying about how a piece of jade has to be processed before it can become a useful tool. Similarly, a human being needs to engage in a process of lifelong learning to be continually useful to society.

The ECDA parenting survey did reveal that more than 90 per cent of parents desired to raise useful citizens. We could redesign schooling to begin with the end goals of citizenship and participation in communal living instead of designing curricula to begin with what many children deem as de-contextualised and abstract ABCs and 123s.

We could flip the order in which we usually work with children – instead of beginning with the traditional 3Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic), we begin with what each child is curious about and we develop the 3Rs of resilience, risk-taking and self-regulation instead. We would need to trust that these new 3Rs will provide a foundation for academic learning because children do not need to be forced to learn, but rather have a good reason to learn.



Sirene Lim and G Kaveri are respectively Academic Lead and Lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences’ Early Childhood Education Programme. This is adapted from a longer piece in The Heart of Learning, a collection of essays by SUSS’ academics.

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