No parent would expect a 13 month old child to simply get up and run around. We do not expect children to walk, swim, skate, or ride a bike without nurturing assistance, encouragement and guidance from adults. We support and guide our children in their physical development as they learn to crawl, take their first step, and use a spoon. A child about to take her first step faces many challenges as she learns to balance and move one foot in front of the other.
There are many obstacles in the way of early steps, and we take care to help children avoid stumbles and falls. We want to ensure that their early mobility experiences are not overwhelmed by fears of being hurt; we want children to, above all, experience the joy of independence.
Early engagement in dance and play with other children helps to develop a child’s dexterity. Eye-hand coordination developed through artistic activities, such as drawing lines and circles, using colours, and using hands and fingers to build and shape the things a child sees, hears, and experiences, helps to build an all-important foundation for future learning. Early physical development is important, but equally important and too often neglected are the development of a child’s language-cognitive and social-emotional skills.
Developing a child’s language skills, the proficiency to use not just words but sentences to express thoughts, feelings, fears, desires, and ideas, and to comprehend what is expressed in language by others, is of immeasurable importance to the development of a child. Developing a child’s language-cognitive skills requires extensive exposure to language. This means more than three-word commands such as: “Don’t do this!” and “Don’t touch that.” It means engaging children in stories and songs linked to pictures and activities which expose them to experience the meaning of this andthat in different contexts. The objective is to develop a child’s language-cognitive proficiency, to make language the child’s primary and most effective means of communicating and with that to minimize the negative experiences of not being understood, of incapacity, and of frustration. Language-cognitive experiences, both positive and negative, are self-reinforcing with life-long consequences. Underdeveloped verbal communication skills lead to pent-up frustrations and a reliance on more destructive but less effective means of expression.
The third critical area, distinct from but linked to physical and language-cognitive development, is social-emotional development. This entails a child’s capacity to engage in play and activities with other children, to experience sharing, giving, receiving, empathy and sympathy. These core areas of a child’s development — physical, language-cognitive, and social-emotional — need to be linked and coordinated to maximize the benefits a child will derive from the experience. A child’s capacity to learn these essential skills, to absorb them and rely on them, is at its peak between the ages of two and five. By the time a child reaches kindergarten age that capacity, while still present, is past its peak and is diminishing.
Children at the pre-kindergarten age are as yet undeveloped human beings who will, in the decades to come, carry the burden of responsibility in dealing with the consequences of the society we shape today. Merely feeding children in their early years, changing their diapers, and protecting them from physical harm is not enough to guide them on the road to adulthood. They will need language-cognitive and social-emotional skills developed to their fullest possible extent in order to succeed in the globally interconnected world we will be passing on to them. The evidence of what a long-term commitment to comprehensive early childhood development can accomplish is provided by countries where such programs have been adopted.
Research by Canadian scientists established that the consequences of neglected or deficient early childhood development in these areas are contributing factors to elevated risks of life-long problems ranging from teen pregnancy to aggressive behaviour in early adulthood and to overweight in later middle age. A person’s vulnerability to a range of long-term problems can be as low as four percent for those who benefited from comprehensive early childhood development and as high as seventy percent for those who were deprived of it. The vulnerability to such problems due to inadequate early language-cognitive and social-emotional skill development is significant in one out of three children in Canada. Researchers in the field rank Canada dead last amongst developed countries in providing accessible and affordable quality early child care programs.
A child’s vulnerability to inferior early development cannot be linked to a single cause. Over the past two generations changes in macro-economic philosophies and policies have contributed to a gradual transition from one-income to two-income families. These changes have not provided families with more disposable income, but they have resulted in a dramatic reduction in the time which parents can dedicate to the care of their own children. Another factor is the decrease in the number of children per family. A single child is deprived of the opportunity to develop the kind of early social-emotional skills experienced by his grand-parents who grew up in a family with three or more siblings in close age range and under the full-time supervision of a parent.
Children are not only an integral part of every family; children are society’s most important constituency. Our future, social, cultural and economic, will be determined by the effort we dedicate to early childhood development today. Early childhood years are but a brief moment from the perspective of an average life expectancy of 80 years. However, the life-long social and economic consequences of early childhood development are as significant for the individual as they are for society. The payback for early childhood development is substantial. Research has proven that for every dollar invested in quality early childcare programs society realizes a six dollar reduction in social, economic, and medical costs over the long term. These numbers are not estimates; they are documented in internationally recognized research.
May has been designated Child Care Month in British Columbia to draw attention to the importance of child care. Unfortunately this is the year when Canada lost its foremost advocate in the field with the sudden death in February of this year of University of British Columbia’s Dr. Clyde Hertzman. His research and work in the field of early childhood development earned him recognition as Health Researcher of the Year in 2010 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Order of Canada in 2012. Thanks to his work we have the information and data we need to act. Hertzman describes early childhood development as a “collective implementation good.” From his documentation of experiences gained in other countries we know that early childhood development programs must be based on long-term commitments if they are to succeed. Such programs require rigorous monitoring systems to measure and guide progress. An effective monitoring system must have the capacity to detect when children fall behind anticipated progress, to identify probable causes which may differ from case to case, and point to needed program adjustments. An effective early child care program involves family, neighbourhood, municipality, province and the nation, with every participant committed to the program and contributing that to which he is best suited.
Such all-out efforts are not impossible; we have managed to bring into existence, administer and successfully execute more than one program of the kind in the past. Think of campaigns such as anti-smoking, drinking and driving, ozone depletion, and car safety to name just a few. In all these examples the decisive factor was that we identified a problem, made a commitment to act, set a long-term goal and went about to implement it. The key to success in every such endeavour is always the same: a long-term commitment by individuals and society alike.
Comprehensive early childhood development requires appropriate facilities with enough space and enough staff to enable every child to be enrolled in the years preceding kindergarten. Early childhood development combines research, monitoring, and trained staff. Facilities and staff must be licensed. It is not a baby-sitting service. Most critically, an early childhood development program calls for an unwavering commitment of public funds to ensure access without regard to the economic reality of a child’s parents. Those who fret about the cost to government of such a program need to be reminded of the one-to-six ratio of current expenditures to future savings, to remember that the long-term benefits of investing in early childhood development are not only social, they are economic as well.
Andre Carrel is a retired City Administrator, journalist, author, and full-time grandpal.