SEATTLE — Around the world, hundreds of millions of children are not reaching their developmental potential. Investment in early childhood education, protection and nutrition will help children grow, succeed and contribute to their future communities.
In lower to middle-income countries, 249 million children under five are at a high risk of poor development. Based on data collected by The Lancet in 2010, children in Sub-Saharan Africa face the largest threat, with a risk of 66 percent.
With these numbers, the critical importance of international intervention to benefit children neurologically, increase national economic productivity and help to reduce the cycle of poverty, is clear.
According to the WHO, the first 1,000 days of a child’s life — beginning with conception — are the most critical for development. The brain develops faster during the first three years of life than at any other age.
In infancy, both neurogenesis and synaptogenesis are intensified. This means that the formation of new neuron cells, or neurogenesis, and the creation of paths and connections between those cells, or synaptogenesis, is occurring at a very rapid rate.
Learning occurs when the synaptic pathways are strengthened through repetition and reinforcement. Without stimulation and development of these neural processes, children are less likely to be able to reach their full potential.
Without proper nutrition and cognitive care, children are susceptible to stunting, especially in the first 24 months of life. Stunting affects executive functioning, school success and height.
Adequately balanced nutrients are requisite elements of healthy brain development. Due to this, food insecurity and poverty can also damage early childhood health, leading to lifelong developmental disabilities.
While early childhood education initiatives typically focus on preschool-aged children, recent research by The Lancet concludes that educational stimulation should start much earlier.
UNICEF, the WHO, and the World Bank have already developed a number of strategic interventions worldwide, hoping to create comprehensive early education frameworks for children.
Care for Children’s Development, or CCD, is a collaborative initiative between UNICEF and the WHO. The program supports children’s psychosocial health by emphasizing the importance of reciprocal play and communication between infants and caretakers.
As an example, caretakers are asked to actively respond as the child explores a household object, such as a cup. As the child grasps, tastes and interacts with the cup, he or she is learning basic motor, cognitive, affective and social skills. The caretaker should recognize the child’s interest in the object, praise his or her focus, and encourage continued exploration.
UNICEF is hoping to develop a mobile version of the CCD program, with the aim to create a global community of caretakers who can share personal experiences via their mobiles.
These early education programs, however, need to be grounded in a cultural context in order to have relevance and success. Curricula need to be adapted based on a knowledge of local childrearing practices, songs, games and resources.
The health sector plays a unique role in early childhood education investment. Most community healthcare workers are already a trusted source for information on pregnancy and infancy, so they are positioned to deliver development information alongside traditional care.
According to The Lancet, interventions in nutrition, safety, and early education may cost as little as 50 cents per year, per child. This is a small price to pay for the large returns of child development. Investment in children is an investment in the sustainable development of communities.
Local, national and global support is required to reach this goal. Interventional guidance is needed from the prenatal stage up until age eight. The investment in early childhood education is a critical place to start — grounded in local tradition, play and the communicative relationship between caretaker and child.
– Larkin Smith