Early childhood

© UNICEF/ HQ01-0180/ Pirozzi
A kindergarten class at the 'Shining Star' drop-in centre for orphaned children. Botswana.

The early years of a child's life ─ from birth to age eight and especially the first three years ─ are critical to a child’s development. Studies show that a child’s health, nutrition and emotional environment in those years have a powerful effect on brain development and on behaviour, competence, coping skills and health later in life.

The development of a child’s brain depends on environmental stimulation, especially on the quality of care and interaction that the child receives. During key developmental periods, the amount of grey matter in some areas of a child’s brain can nearly double within a year. By age three, the brains of children are 2.5 times more active than those of adults.

When children are well nurtured and cared for, they are more likely to grow in a healthy way, to have less disease and fewer illnesses, and to fully develop thinking, language, emotional and social skills. When they enter school, they are more likely to perform well and have greater self-esteem. 

On the other hand, children with inadequate levels of parental stimulation and emotional support may experience developmental delays with long-term consequences. Gender bias can deprive girls of the early care and nurturing that is important not only to their physical health but to their cognitive, social and emotional well being. Furthermore it can deprive them of the confidence and self-esteem they need to make the most of school.

Addressing gender discrimination, along with the stereotyping of male and female roles and models of behaviour, must start at home and from birth if girls are to begin school on an equal footing with boys. In most cultures, children have adopted socially-accepted gender roles by the time they enter preschool.

Early stimulation and learning programmes can also give girls a head start. They can help raise parents’ aspirations for their girls—which is critical since expectations are tied to achievement—and help them recognize their daughter’s unique capabilities. Such programmes can also build a young girl’s motivation, increasing the chances that she will enrol and stay in school.

Alternative childcare programmes such as preschools can relieve girls of the responsibility of caring for their younger siblings. For the younger children, preschool programmes can create a space and rhythm in their daily schedules that can eventually be filled by school.

Especially in societies where discrimination is firmly rooted, girls benefit most from interventions that encourage their physical, cognitive and emotional development. In Nepal, for example, children from disadvantaged families who had the opportunity to attend non-formal preschool were 20 per cent more likely to attend school than those who did not. But for girls, the effect was multiplied: they were 36 per cent more likely to enter school.



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Early childhood