Early Childhood Development -— Supporting Health, Learning, and Growth for All
by Molly Curtiss
Early childhood development can sound technical or overly complicated, a jumble of dozens of interventions across all sectors. Really though, it’s quite simple: giving each child all of the things he or she needs to grow up strong and healthy, feel secure, learn and succeed. ECD interventions are critical for ensuring that all children are given a fair start in life and an equal chance to reach their full potential, no matter who they are or where they were born.
But “all the things a young child needs” is still a large and diverse collection of interventions and programs. To keep things simple, we can think of these interventions in several big categories:
- Nutrition - Support for good nutrition for pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and of course babies and infants is essential to ensuring children’s bodies and brains develop healthily. These interventions can include promoting exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, food and nutrient supplements, and providing access to clean water and sanitation facilities.
- Health - Also vital are health services for young children as well as pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, including check ups before and after birth, access to a skilled birth attendant, full vaccination, regular checkups, and treatment for illness.
- Play & Learning - Critically important to brain and skills development, babies and toddlers need opportunities for mental stimulation, play and early learning right from the start. This includes providing training for parents and caregivers on the importance of mental stimulation and learning through play, access to high quality childcare, and two years of free pre-primary education for all children.
- Protection - In addition to adequate shelter and protection from harm and abuse (especially in emergency and disaster settings), protection interventions also include birth registration and care services for orphans and vulnerable children.
None of these are possible without access to affordable, quality childcare options, which remains a seriously neglected issue. Childcare is critical to ensuring the healthy, safety, and development of young children. Interventions include not just access to affordable childcare centers for all, but also support for family-friendly work policies such as paid parental leave and scaling up social protection schemes for children and caregivers.
What does ECD have to do with education? Both access to school and academic achievement are greatly impacted by children’s experiences during the early years. Mental stimulation, play, and early learning play a vital role in healthy brain development, teach children cognitive and socioemotional skills necessary for success in the classroom, and improve school readiness. Numerous studies have shown that children who attend preschool, for example, are more likely to attend primary school, to stay in school longer, and to perform better academically. Parents and caregivers do not always have the time or the resources to provide these essential early learning opportunities, which can cause children to fall behind before they ever set foot in a classroom and diminish their chances for academic success, so ECD programs are essential to giving all kids an equal opportunity at success.
ECD services also support school outcomes indirectly. Healthy, well-nourished children are more likely to go to school and to learn once they’re there — everyone knows how hard it is to pay attention when you’re hungry! In addition to its physical toll, chronic malnutrition also harms brain development and can result in poorer school outcomes. Birth registration helps guarantee children have access to social services, including the education system. Support from a nurturing, stable caregiver buffers children from the negative effects of stress and poverty, gives children a sense of security, and builds up resilience and self-esteem.
But more than just preparing children for success in school, support for the early years sets children up for healthy, happy, productive lives and helps level the playing field for those most likely to be left behind.
ECD has begun to get more attention on the global stage and this year has seen good progress in raising awareness of the need for holistic support for the early years. The new Sustainable Development Goals, adopted last autumn at the United Nations, include a specific ECD target, calling for “ all girls and boys [to] have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education” by 2030. This Wednesday, The Lancet is launching a new series on Advancing Early Childhood Development: From Science to Scale, and the following day the World Bank is hosting a Human Capital Summit, where governments are expected to make new commitments to scaling up ECD services in their own countries.
These are great steps forward. But to truly scale up early childhood services so that they reach every child – and most especially reach the poorest, the marginalized, and those living through emergencies and disasters — we will need a global movement. All sectors, all agencies, donors, country governments and advocates alike, must work together to create a breakthrough for ECD.
Molly Curtiss is a research consultant for Theirworld.