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Early years development: What do children really need?

Nov 20, 2019.

The foundations of educational opportunity are laid down in the first years of life. The “Marie Meierhofer Institut für das Kind” is an early learning competence centre and our partner for “The Human Safety Net”. In the interview, the director of the Institute, Dr Heidi Simoni, explains what is needed to strengthen children’s development.

Dr Simoni, how can parents or guardians foster the development of young children?


Opportunities to play and interact with other children and grown-ups are important. Children need an environment that encourages them to explore and figure out the world, to ask questions and find answers.


What are the most frequent misunderstandings about early childhood development that you hear?


First of all, it’s not about teaching children specific things in classrooms as soon as possible. That doesn’t match up at all with how children learn. Secondly, while play is indeed a central activity for young children, not all important experiences really need an element of play. The key to early years development is to provide child and family-friendly conditions and facilities.


"It’s not about teaching children things in classrooms as soon as possible"



In Switzerland, children start nursery school with four or five years. Children of different ages have to deal with the same challenges. Any that aren’t ready for it (yet) are sent to early childhood therapy. How do you view this situation?


Structural failings of the school system should not be at the expense of the children. A child only needs early childhood therapy or early support in terms of remedial education when a disorder such as autism has been identified or when there are special difficulties, for example in language acquisition. It’s completely normal to see children of nursery school age  at different stages in their development. However, we must also consider that not all children have the same chances in the first years of life. Of course, you can see that in their development and in their progress at school. This is where early years development comes in.


What is “MegaMarie” exactly?


MegaMarie is one of our practical projects. It is a small, professionally well-staffed family centre for young children and their parents or other carers. It’s a welcoming place for play, painting, making things and interaction. Extending the boundaries of the family circle into the wider world is always an adventurous step. It involves the first separations for the children, mothers and fathers. Parents also have lots of questions about their child or about education. At MegaMarie, they can talk about these issues with other parents or with the professionals working there.


How do you reach socially disadvantaged families with your programme?


We work closely with organisations such as parental support services or Caritas. A partnership such as with Generali’s “The Human Safety Net” is also important. It enables us to share knowledge and experience well beyond Switzerland’s borders with people committed to disadvantaged families and young children. And we regularly invite children from the nearby federal asylum centre so they can spend an afternoon in the MegaMarie painting workshop.


Which areas of early years education in Switzerland do you see as having the greatest potential for action?


We should once and for all dispel widely held but oversimplified notion of children being a private matter. Of course, families are the centre of the world for small children, and parents are generally the most important people bringing them up. But families don’t exist in a vacuum. Family and child poverty, along with isolation, are a scandal, particularly for a country like Switzerland. That’s why we’re all too willing to underestimate the extent of these problems or to sweep them under the carpet.


Dr Heidi Simoni qualified as a psychologist at the University of Basel. Since 2007, she has been director of the Marie Meierhofer-Institut für das Kind (MMI). A trained psychotherapist, she was head of practical development at the Institute for seven years. In 2018, she received the education prize from the Zurich University of Teacher Education for her commitment in the area of early childhood learning, care and development.