What is Early Childhood Development?
‘Children are the leaders of tomorrow’- this is the phrase we all hear right from childhood to adulthood across various spheres of life. However, this ‘leadership in the future’ is dependent on what is being done in the early stages of childhood.
Early Childhood, as defined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), is the period of life from birth to eight years old and a time of remarkable growth with brain development at its peak. This is a crucial time of growth as 90% of a child’s brain is developed by age 5. Relatedly, the holistic development of a child’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional needs to build a strong and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing occurs at this stage. This development is what is termed Early Childhood Development (ECD).
Considering the importance of ECD, the topic is of great concern for many educators, development experts, governments and international donor organisations across the world. This concern is due to the realization of lost potential that could occur individually and societally if children do not experience proper and holistic development. Currently, in low and middle-income countries, 250 million children under the age of five may not reach their developmental potential due to poverty. Specifically, in Sub-Saharan Africa, there is a great need for early childhood development as only 28% of pre-primary children were enrolled in school in 2019 compared to over 90% for primary school-age children according to the World Bank. Though important, enrollment in pre-primary education does not take away the role of family development, but simply adds to the foundational nurturing that occurs at home.
In addition, children in the rural areas and underserved communities across Africa are less likely to access pre-primary education compared to their urban counterparts. With rapid population growth in Africa, it is essential that there is a focus on inclusive ECD interventions so no child is left disadvantaged and their future is maximised.
Benefits of Early Childhood Development
Early Childhood Development leads to individual and societal benefits in various areas such as education and development, labour market, poverty and health amongst others. Looking at the individual improvement, children who engage in early childhood care and education perform better in school, have higher rates of school completion and college attendance. Due to this improved education and higher educational attainment, these individuals tend to have better chances in the labour market, as they can easily acquire jobs or generate self-employment opportunities. With such early preparation, poverty rates are slowly reduced as people can contribute to wealth generation for themselves, their families and the society at large. If each African child is guaranteed to have access to early child care and education, there will be a major impact on the society and continent at large. Productivity gains from the activities of these children developed at an early age will translate to economic growth across the continent.
Previous research conducted by experts also show the effects of early childhood development on future earnings. Research conducted by the Jamaican Psychological Stimulation Intervention in 1986-1987 showed a 25% increase in the earnings of the stunted children who received the weekly home visits by trained community health workers, 20 years after the program was implemented. Looking specifically at some African countries, the implementation of ECD interventions in Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Kenya over the past decades have greatly improved the pre-primary school enrollment rates to 78%, 73% and 65% respectively. With continued efforts in these countries and across the continent, early childhood development will become a standard and norm that will greatly benefit many children and the economies of nations likewise.
Call to Action
‘It takes a village to raise a child’. For early childhood development, this village is both near and far. Families are the first and most important part of the village as they are the first environments children encounter and gain experiences of growth and development. Families are the building blocks of societies and nations so with each child, a great level of intentionality in parenting, nurturing and training in the early years should be done, ensuring that they are set up for success in the long-term. Families here, refers to both nuclear and extended family members as each individual contributes to the holistic development of children in their care and community.
The next part of the village would be teachers and educational institutions. Besides family, a child’s experience at school frames their perspective on life and the potential of their success in it. The subjects taught, the lessons learnt on interpersonal relationships, the recognition of talents, the exploration of self, people and environments all aid the children involved to become their best individual self and effective members of society. Schools need to ensure that their curriculum and activities focus on the holistic development of children at their early ages. This intentional mode of education causes a positive trajectory for the children.
Looking at the village far, the government plays a foundational role in early childhood development. If the structures, systems and policies of a country are not favourable, the actions of families and educational institutions are limited and can only be effective to a minimal extent. The government should ensure that the basic needs (food, shelter and clothing) of its citizens are met as this equips families to actively gather the resources and knowledge needed to raise their children. For schools, reform, investment and infrastructure development should be done to ensure that there are conducive environments for education and curriculum development is designed in accordance to the needs of children at an early age.
The future of Africa is highly dependent on the success of its children, there is so much potential that should not be wasted. The ECD framework below provides a summarized guideline for the actions that can be taken at each level. As each stakeholder takes responsibility for its part to play, we can eagerly look forward to a promising future for all African children and a better Africa.
This article was jointly written with Ememobong Etim
Emem Etim is an impact-driven research and project coordinator, demonstrating her creative and analytical skills in the implementation of development-focused projects across Africa. She also possesses experience in business development and graphic design, ensuring that all her talents are utilised. When she is not working, you will find her hidden in a book, dancing to good music or living her best life traveling!