What is Early Childhood Development?

In the earliest years of life, especially from pregnancy to age three, babies need nutrition, protection and stimulation for healthy brain development. Recent advances in neuroscience provide new evidence about a baby’s brain development during this time.

As a result, we know that in their earliest years, babies’ brains form new connections at an astounding rate – according to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child more than 1 million every single second – a pace never repeated again.

In the brain-building process, neural connections are shaped by genes and life experiences – namely good nutrition, protection and stimulation from talk, play and responsive attention from caregivers. This combination of nature and nurture establishes the foundation of a child’s future. 

Yet too many children are still missing out on the ‘eat, play, and love’ their brains need to develop. Put simply, we don’t care for children’s brains the way we care for their bodies.

Often, the most disadvantaged children are least likely to have access to the essential ingredients for healthy development. For example, frequent or prolonged exposure to extreme stress – such as neglect and abuse – can trigger biological response systems that, without the buffer of a protective adult, create toxic stress, a response that can interfere with brain development. As the child grows, toxic stress can portend physical, mental and behavioural problems in adulthood.

Conflict and uncertainty also play a role as children younger than five in conflict-affected areas and fragile states face elevated risks to their lives, health and wellbeing.

Oversight and inaction have a high price and long-term implications for the health, happiness and earning potential as these children become adults. They also contribute to global cycles of poverty, inequality and social exclusion.

Despite the need, early childhood programmes remain severely underfunded with lacklustre execution. Government investment in early childhood development is low. For example, in 27 sub-Saharan African countries measured, only 0.01 per cent of gross national product was spent on pre-primary education in 2012.

Building Your Child’s Brain

Here are some interesting key facts:

  • Lack of nutrition in early childhood leads to stunting, which globally affects nearly one-in-four children younger than five.
  • Risks associated with poverty – such as undernutrition and poor sanitation – can lead to developmental delays and a lack of progress in school.
  • Violent discipline is widespread in many countries, and nearly 70 percent of children between two and four were yelled or screamed at in the past month.
  • 300 million children younger than five have been exposed to societal violence.
  • For a child in a low- or middle-income country, poor early development could mean they earn around one-quarter less in income, as an adult.
  • For a country, poor early childhood development could mean economic loss; in India, the loss is about twice the gross domestic product spent on health.

The Solution

Good news: the right interventions at the right time can bolster development, break intergenerational cycles of inequity and provide a fair start in life for every child. For babies born into deprivation, intervening early, when the brain is rapidly developing, can reverse harm and help build resilience.

For children with disabilities, it means making sure they have access to the individual, family and community services available to all children; combined with programmes that address each child’s specific needs.

Thanks to the compelling scientific evidence and sustained advocacy, governments and society are beginning to realise the criticality of investing in the earliest years of a child’s life. In 2015, early childhood development was included in the Sustainable Development Goals, reaffirming its growing status in the global development agenda.

This built on earlier efforts which saw early childhood development included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that a child has a right to develop to “the maximum extent possible” and recognised “the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.”

A Good Start in Life

Investing in early childhood development is a cost-effective way to boost shared prosperity, promote inclusive economic growth, expand equal opportunity, and end extreme poverty.

But parents need time and support to create a loving and safe environment to give their babies the ‘eat, play and love’ they need, and to help build their babies’ brains.

Researchers have shown that investing in the early years is one of the smartest investments a country can make to break the cycle of poverty, address inequality and boost productivity later in life. That was backed up by in-depth research published by the medical journal The Lancet.

Benefits of Early Childhood Education

1. Socialization:

Socialization with people other than the child’s family in a safe environment is an essential foundational element to the below areas.

As parents, we intuitively understand that it’s important to introduce our children to other children and support their transition into their own friendship groups.

The earlier we do this, the better, as it helps children overcome shyness and gain self-confidence. If we leave this too long, we actually hinder their social development.

2. Concept of Cooperation:

Learning how to share, cooperate, take turns and persevere within a safe learning environment, guided by professionals who have the children’s best interests at heart.

This is especially important for the first child, who may not be used to sharing with their siblings at home – while it can be a difficult lesson, it’s so crucial to learn it early.

3. Enthusiasm for Lifelong Learning:

Lessons should be given in a fun and exciting way that will encourage children to be effective learners. We need to inspire a thirst for learning with eagerness and enthusiasm.

Love of education- for reading, learning, discovery, nature- takes root in preschool.

4. Convey the Value of Education Through Experience:

Grasping the value of learning and education by setting an example as role models and by providing actual experiences.

While parents will always be the most important influence on a child’s early life, introducing them to a preschool environment provides them with a new perspective on the importance of education that will remain with them throughout their schooling journey. It also demonstrates that you value their education highly.

5. Respect:

Teaching the value of respect for others. This is not limited to people and belongings, but can also mean respect for their environment, both immediate and global.

There is no better place to learn this virtue than in a hectic preschool environment, where everything is shared and civility and manners are both taught and learned organically.

6. Teamwork:

Demonstrating and instilling the importance of teamwork that can teach respect for the opinions of others, listening, cooperation and equality.

Many preschool activities are centered around teamwork for this very reason; a person who learns how to work in a team at an early age will ultimately be more socially attuned and more employable!

7. Resilience:

It’s important that early childhood educators and parents work together to develop resilience in children as early as possible. By creating a consistent, secure and fair social environment, with clear expectations and predictable consequences, children can develop skills in managing themselves and their emotions.

It’s a teacher’s job to provide a challenging environment where children can learn through first hand experiences. They may experience bumps, bruises or losing a game from time-to-time, but this is the foundation for building coping strategies for greater challenges in life.

For more information about the importance of childhood development, or to book a consultation, contact Anel Annandale at 021 423 0739 or via email at  anel@childpsych.co.za.

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