I used to think that early childhood development was all about education. That if we taught a child her colours and shapes, her letters and numbers, it would stimulate her mind and encourage healthy brain growth. And that is very true.
But we now know that it takes more than education for a child’s brain to develop – a lot more. And what we are learning should ignite a revolution in how we think about and act on early childhood development. We already knew how critical the first years of a child’s life are to the healthy development of her brain. During those early years, almost 1000 brain cells connect every second – a pace never matched again.
These connections are the building blocks of a child’s life. They help determine her cognitive, emotional and social development. They help define her capacity to learn, her future success … even her future happiness. But now we know that those connections are deeply affected not only by genetics but also by the conditions of a child’s young life. The two are inextricably intertwined.
So when we stimulate a child’s mind by playing with her, talking to her, and reading to her, we feed her developing brain. A child lacking in the attention she gets from a caring family is not only less happy now. Her ability to live and learn fully later is affected. When we nourish a child’s body with the proper nutrition, we are also feeding her brain and facilitating those neural connections. And when we care for her and protect her from violence and abuse, we are also buffering her brain from the toxic stress that can break those critical connections and hamper healthy brain development.
This is life-changing stuff. It compels us to act – and to act differently.
Think of what our knowledge about how nutrition feeds the brain means for the most deprived children. Around the world today, almost 160 million children are stunted – harming their health and their cognitive development. How can they then reach their full potential? And how productive and prosperous can any society be when, as in some countries, almost half of the population is stunted?
Or think of what our knowledge about the effects of toxic stress on the developing brain means for the more than 50 million children who are growing up in the midst of major conflict. The children in Yemen … in Syria … in Central African Republic. How are their brains being affected? And thus their future ability to think and reason? Their ability to trust others and to make friends?
Or think of the countless children in every country who are victims of violence and abuse. When parents physically chastise or abuse their children, they not only hurt their feelings, they hurt their futures.
So, how do we unlock the life-changing benefits of early brain development and function?
We invest early, to give every child a fair chance in life from the start.
We invest equitably, because the children with the least, benefit the most.
We invest smartly – not only in education, but also in health, nutrition and protection. As they all work together to promote healthy brain development, and so too should our investments and programmes be integrated.
We do it now.
The leaders of the world have just adopted the Sustainable Development Goals – and for the first time, ECD is explicitly recognised in the global development agenda. Although ECD comes under the new education goal, it provides a natural link to other goals – helping reduce poverty, improve health and nutrition, promote women and girls’ equality, and reduce violence. We need to build on this momentum.
And so we do it together. Not only governments or development professionals. All of us.
Media can seize this moment and help the public better understand why ECD matters – for every child and every society.
Philanthropists can boost funding for early childhood development – some of the least resourced programmes for children. The private sector should support these programmes – and adopt policies that make it easier for working parents to care for their young children. This is an investment in today’s workplace and tomorrow’s workforce.
Civil society – which is already playing an enormous role in promoting ECD – can intensify and coordinate its efforts so that ECD services and quality early childhood programmes reach every child, everywhere.
And with so much at stake, we all can do more to leverage each other’s strengths, expertise and networks. This is a chance to fuel a new movement for our earliest children that benefits us all. Let’s do what the science tells us we must do. The knowledge is irrefutable. The moral argument is strong. The investment case is persuasive. The SDG momentum is with us. And the power to act is in our hands.
Anthony Lake is the Executive Director of UNICEF.