Early childhood education (ECE) in Saskatchewan now includes provincially funded educational programs for children aged 3 to 8 years. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, early childhood schooling was delivered through private kindergarten programs usually located in urban areas such as Regina, where the first early schooling was established. Interested parents operated fee-paying kindergartens while the provincial Department of Education focused on establishing the grade one to twelve system. By the 1950s, a provincial kindergarten curriculum guide was available for sale to private kindergartens. Provincial superintendents made periodic safety checks of these private kindergarten programs, but no program quality standards were in effect.
During the 1960s, the interest in early childhood education grew, with the result that the Department of Education began to fund kindergarten programs in Regina and Moose Jaw public school systems; 1969 brought partial funding to other local boards for these programs. In 1972, the Report of the Minister's Committee on Kindergarten provided a plan for publicly funded kindergarten programs throughout the province. The kindergarten program goal was to promote self-actualization, socialization, and a commitment to learning through a variety of individual and group activities. The early childhood program was to be separate from Division One (grades one to three), but articulation for continuous progress through the early school years was paramount. Half-days in urban settings or full-days every other day in rural communities were common attendance patterns. Integrated kindergarten and grade one, two, or three groups reflected the economic realities of rural school divisions.
Saskatchewan recognized that the most important component in an early childhood setting is the teacher: qualified teachers with specialized training in early childhood education were essential in the implementation of kindergartens. Several approaches were introduced. The need to prepare new kindergarten teachers fell to the province's two teacher education programs in the Universities of Regina and Saskatchewan. Each program developed a series of early childhood courses for their four-year programs, and offered summer school courses on both campuses over the ensuing years. The University of Saskatchewan eliminated its ECE specialty in the early 1980s.
Summer school bursaries for kindergarten teachers were instituted in 1974 by the Department of Education. The University of Regina offered an Early Childhood Education Institute described as a seminar-work-study experience in early childhood education to teachers in 1974, 1975, and 1976. The Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation provided a one-week course in its annual kindergarten sessions. The Department of Education and some local school divisions also provided consultative services. A review of kindergarten programs in 1981-82 revealed a need to clarify the purpose of the program: educators were interpreting the program either as education for school readiness, or as education for child development. In 1991, a survey assessing program needs identified a continuing confusion about program direction and supports for successful maintenance of the program.
A kindergarten curriculum guide, Children First, was developed in 1974, then revised in 1978 and 1994. The most recent curriculum guide emphasizes the provision of a strong foundation from which students can grow to become active participants in lifelong learning. In 1997, Saskatchewan Education introduced a pre-kindergarten program as part of the Community Schools initiative. Pre-kindergarten is a prevention and early intervention program for children who would benefit from early school-based experiences. This holistic education program is intended to nurture 3- and 4-year-old children's socio-emotional, intellectual, and physical development. A handbook based on the kindergarten curriculum, Better Beginnings, Better Futures: Best Practices Policy and Guidelines for Pre-kindergarten, provides a conceptual framework that promotes a high-quality early childhood experience. This framework stresses the enhancement of children's positive self-esteem, speech and language development, and communication skills through direct family involvement, community partnerships, and integrated social and health services.
In pre-kindergarten programming, qualified early childhood education teachers partner with teacher assistants who are familiar with the community context to provide a half-time education program for up to sixteen children for twelve hours weekly. Family liaison and education programming complement the children's educational experiences.
To complement the pre-kindergarten focus, the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina instituted an early childhood education section in the Elementary Teacher Education program in 2002. Consisting of ECE courses focused on teaching children between the ages of 3 and 8, this program prepares teachers who are knowledgeable about the importance of appropriate early learning experiences and environments for very young children. In addition, the program offers practicum opportunities in pre-kindergarten classrooms in Community Schools, where these pre-service teachers also participate in family and community activities.
Caroline D. Krentz