Catholic Early Childhood Education – “Let the little children come to Me.”

Diocese of Raleigh Catholic Schools

From the moment mothers and fathers realize they’re expecting a baby, saying “I love you” to this new child is a constant litany in the best of families. Our beloved babies are kissed on the forehead, smiled at in strollers, and hear the words “I love you” morning, noon and night. The beauty of a new creation is a source of awe for everyone they encounter, as they learn to smile, wave and talk to the people in the bigger world. How do parents continue to spread the circle of trusted, caring adults as their baby grows into a toddler, and into an independent preschooler? In a worldwide climate that includes fear and loneliness, Catholic schools provide a vital foundation of trust, care and belonging, beginning with our youngest students.

A high-quality preschool program nurtures an environment where children learn to trust in the goodness of other children, and adults. The ability to focus several hours a day on this environment means that early childhood educators have the resources to include a wide range of experiences for their students. Selecting stories, activities and manipulatives that are developmentally appropriate is a daily task for these teachers, but results in scaffolded moments of discovery.

In a Catholic early childhood community, these experiences include a constant undercurrent of our faith. Classrooms may include a child-height Holy Water font, with careful attention to all of the parents who have lifted their babies up to dip their fingers in adult-height fonts! Everything is touchable for our preschoolers, as they rub their finger on a Crucifix or squeeze a “stuffed” Blessed Mother or Baby Jesus. The students are learning the names and significance of all of the tenets of our faith, but they are learning deeper spiritual lessons as well. When a child hears, “Jesus loves you” over and over, this truth leaves an indelible mark on their eternal soul, a foundational belief in their own goodness. Additionally, hearing this truth proclaimed over their friends begins the formation of the concept of the dignity of all human beings, even those who have taken a toy without our permission!

An early education in a faith-filled environment also supports children as they work through the harder struggles of development. In one of the early childhood programs that my children had the honor of attending, students entered the classrooms through the gathering space in front of the church. At times, this resulted in students coming to school as preparations were being made for a funeral. Although the caskets were always closed, the children were lovingly taught that all of the flowers were there because someone was going to heaven to be with Jesus. For the adults, this was a poignant moment, but this formational framework of life, death and love supported young children to understand our life on earth within the loving language of our faith.

The connectedness of parents in Catholic early childhood education creates a network of caring adults who, in many communities, will be a part of your child’s life through adulthood. From “Muffins with Moms” and “Doughnuts with Dads” to meeting everyone’s extended families at Christmas programs, children (and adults!) can learn that we do not live a life of isolation. Through our faith and our shared dedication to parenting, our Catholic schools are ever-widening circles of familiar faces. We know that this support network continues to be crucial to healthy social development for children, and the structure of our schools ensures that this need can be met.

In considering the educational needs of a toddler, they seem uncomplicated. Healthy eating, learning good manners, and the opportunity to explore are all crucial as they grow. A quality Catholic early childhood program creates a nurturing environment where these learning needs, and so many more developmental opportunities, can be met by caring educators. Although the initial reason for enrolling in our schools is often centered on the growth of the students, parents will find that our communities also support the parents and extended families of our students. The ripples of love and nurture created in our early childhood classrooms reach throughout our parishes and neighborhoods, and into the future lives of our students. Catholic early childhood programs make the world a better place, and form future disciples and scholars.