The early years of a child's life represent a period of intense learning. Babies and preschool children only gradually learn to walk, talk and comprehend language, to feed, clothe and toilet themselves, and to behave appropriately. Early childhood experiences affect learning, behaviour, and health throughout the lifetime. Early childhood programs support healthy child development, provide opportunities for playing and socializing with other children, and ensure that children are ready to learn. Parents may also make use of programs to facilitate adult activities such as employment, education, volunteer participation, or social and recreational activities. Good early childhood programs can improve life outcomes and quality of life for both children and parents.
Saskatchewan has a tradition dating back to the 19th century of public involvement in the care and learning of “school-age” children. Until recently, however, raising preschool children in Saskatchewan was considered the business of parents, with limited public intervention or support. Early childhood programs that did exist were typically run by charities, independent non-profit organizations, or individuals. As the public becomes more aware of the importance of early childhood to school success and life outcomes, public support for early childhood are gradually becoming more extensive and coherent.
Kindergarten is one form of early childhood program that has been available in most communities for many years. Kindergarten is made available through school systems at no cost to parents, and most 5-year-olds are enrolled. Boards of Education also offer early entrance supports to preschool children with disabilities to ensure they will be ready for school along with their age-mates. A system of licensed child care services was introduced in Saskatchewan in 1974, along with a subsidy designed to cover a portion of fees for low-income families. Licensed child care is intended to have both a custodial and developmental aspect. This system represents a relatively small proportion - about 10% - of care and learning services used by parents.
Many publicly funded early childhood programs in Saskatchewan are targeted to children at risk owing to poverty or disability. The Early Childhood Intervention Program (ECIP) helps children at risk of developmental delay. The KidsFirst program provides high-risk families with home visits, early learning opportunities, child care, and other family supports. About 100 prekindergarten programs have been set up in designated “community schools,” and the federal government provides similar programs for Aboriginal children, both on and off-reserve.
Preschool programs have become popular among parents of 3- to 5-year-olds. In 2001, more than 40% of all Saskatchewan children in this age group were enrolled in a preschool (sometimes called play school or nursery school) even though these private or non-profit early childhood programs receive no direct public funding. Many parents also take advantage of popular community programs, such as story hours at the public library or swimming lessons. Economists and business leaders are becoming more aware of the importance of early childhood to school success and the successful transitions of children to adulthood and the labour force. Families, communities, and governments continue to work towards sustainable early childhood services that respect parents' needs and choices, and that result in verifiable benefits to young children in Saskatchewan.