Education and Gender Equality


Child-friendly education (for all)

Girls' education and gender equality

Early childhood development (ECD)

Education in emergencies



Early childhood development (ECD)

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-1243/Pirozzi
Boys perform an exercise in a pre-school class at a public school in Madagascar. The Government, with assistance from UNICEF, is introducing early childhood development programmes in schools throughout the country.

Experiences in early childhood truly shape a person’s future. The first weeks, months and years are the times when every human being’s cognitive, emotional and social foundations are formed. A baby who is hugged, comforted and stimulated has an essential advantage over those who are not. Children who are nurtured and well cared for are more likely to fully develop their learning and language, as well as emotional and social skills. 

Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes are pathways that link a child’s early experiences to later learning and development. Anchored in growing scientific, economic and human development evidence, ECD programmes can not only improve young children's capacity to develop and learn, they can break down the inter-generational cycle that prevents children from achieving their full potential from malnutrition, illnesses, impaired learning, and even school dropout. 

While it is difficult to report on ECD access largely due to the age range of children involved, and the varied approaches used; nonetheless, the available data suggest very low ECD coverage across Eastern and Southern Africa. Thankfully, the situation is improving, and more and more governments are now developing ECD guidelines and policies, especially for the most disadvantaged children.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0509/Khumalo
Children participate in a day-care programme at a primary school in South Africa.

UNICEF in action

UNICEF supports early childhood development in the region through various strategies. These include advocacy with stakeholders on the benefits of ECD, and building capacities at all levels of society - governments, teachers, health and social service providers, communities, parents and children. 

At the policy level, UNICEF plays a crucial role in the development of national plans, setting minimum standards, curriculum design, and teacher training, among others, to help countries implement quality ECD programmes. UNICEF also advocates with governments and donors to increase resources to expand the reach of ECD, especially for vulnerable children who are most in need of such programmes.

As a knowledge broker, UNICEF generates new research results on the benefits of early childhood development. Working with partners, such as the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, UNICEF is currently developing new strategies to improve ECD access for children affected by HIV and AIDS.

Results for children

Although ECD programmes are yet to reach all young children in need, many countries are putting policies, systems and resources in place to increase priorities and coverage. 

  • Eleven countries - Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Rwanda, Swaziland, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia - are developing national ECD policies and guidelines, while several others are carrying out national parenting programmes to improve early childhood care among vulnerable families. 

  • In Tanzania and Ethiopia, UNICEF supported the mainstreaming of ECD programmes into the integrated management of childhood illness at the community level to increase access to early stimulation for children under the age of three.

  • In a number of countries, governments, in collaboration with UNICEF, have promoted access to ECD services by establishing innovative programmes. These include community-based child care programmes in Malawi, a rapid school readiness initiative in Kenya, a child-to-child mentoring approach in Ethiopia, and expanding ECD programmes to primary schools in Lesotho and Zimbabwe. 

  • In South Africa, UNICEF supported a public expenditure study on ECD programmes, the first of its kind in the country. The study tracked funding from its source to the level of service delivery in communities. The initiative produced tools to better target ECD services and increase resources for the sector.



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