Early childhood development

Every child deserves the best start in life and the opportunity to thrive. A child’s brain develops rapidly during the early years, and lost opportunities might never be redeemed.

Small boy in Rwanda plays with toy blocks in early childhood development center

The challenge

In the first 1,000 days of life, babies’ brains form new connections at a pace never repeated again. Over 80 per cent of a child’s brain is formed by the age of 3, and up to 75 per cent of each meal goes directly to building a baby’s brain. These first 1,000 days have a lasting effect on a child’s future, and there is only one chance to get it right.

Early childhood development – ECD – is about supporting a child in these critical early years, providing holistic access to early learning, good nutrition, hygiene and protection.


Boy in early childhood development center in Rwanda drinks milk
A young boy drinks milk at an early childhood development centre in Rwanda, provided daily to every child to help prevent malnutrition.

In Rwanda, children and families lack access to basic ECD services.

Nearly 800,000 children – 38 per cent – are stunted, preventing them from reaching their full potential in cognitive, motor, language and socio-emotional skills. In the long term, children who are chronically malnourished have a great chance of performing poorly in school. 

Just 18 per cent of children between ages 3 and 6 have opportunities to attend pre-school programmes, day care, or other early learning facilities.

Only 1 per cent of children 3 and under have access to these ECD services.

Children from poor families especially suffer and are more than three times as likely to be severely stunted than children from wealthier families.

A young boy plays with blocks at an early childhood development centre in Ngoma District, Rwanda.
A young boy plays with blocks at an early childhood development centre in Ngoma District, Rwanda. Learning through play is an important part of childhood, when imagination and discovery can help a child's brain grow and develop, better preparing them for primary school.

Home environments are not stimulating for young children.

Only 1 in 5 parents in Rwanda are engaged in activities that support early learning at home, such as reading or playing games with their child. Men are particularly disengaged with early learning and nurturing activities at home.

More than half of children under age 2 are victims of violent discipline, and more than half of young children are left home alone during the day or in the care of an older sibling.

Although a National Early Childhood Development Policy and its Strategic Plan are in place, the effects of these policies are not yet felt, especially for the most marginalised children.


A mother and a trained early childhood caregiver play with children in their home.
A mother and a trained early childhood caregiver play with children in their home.

The solution

Although early childhood development is still emerging in Rwanda, the Government has demonstrated its commitment to this sector at the highest level. In the last few years, UNICEF has successfully handed over its model early childhood development centres to government ownership and management.

In the next five years, UNICEF’s ECD programme in Rwanda aims to:

Children play at an early childhood development centre in Ngoma District, Rwanda.

Increase access to and use of quality ECD services for families and their children, including integration of health, nutrition and protection.

A mother and father in Rwamagana, Rwanda play with their young baby.

Improve effective and responsive child care provided by parents, caregivers, families and communities.

A caregiver at an ECD centre interacts with her pre-primary students in Ruhango, Rwanda.

Support implementation of ECD policies and strengthen government coordination of ECD between districts and the national level.


Increasing access to and use of ECD services

    In the formative years, children need access to services that provide them with opportunities to learn and interact with their peers. Between the ages of 3 and 5 years, children are developing complex social behaviours, emotional capacities, problem-solving abilities, and pre-literacy skills that are essential building blocks for a successful life. Children need access to organised early learning opportunities which prepares them for learning in a school setting and allows them to interact with their peers.

    UNICEF provides funds, materials and technical knowledge to establish ECD model “centres of excellence” in each district. These centres provide the infrastructure and environment a young child needs to develop to their full potential. UNICEF also helps train ECD caregivers for these facilities.


    Improving effective and responsive child care

    Nurturing young children begins in the earliest stages of life. It depends heavily on the home environment in which a child is raised, including two critical components:

    • Physical environment, including safe physical spaces, good sanitation, clean drinking water, and the availability of books and toys to stimulate a child’s mind.
    • Parent engagement with the child, which nurtures a child’s ability to develop cognitively, physically, emotionally, and socially.

    To help parents and other caregivers provide quality child care, UNICEF and the Government have developed a National Parenting Curriculum. UNICEF is also helping to initiate a parenting education programme at national and district levels, as well as in communities.  


    Supporting policy development and government coordination

    Even if children receive responsive care at home and have access to ECD and social services, this must still be supported by effective policy and government support. The Government must also have sufficient budget to implement these policies to support children and families.

    UNICEF participates in dialogue with the Government to advocate for child-sensitive, evidence-based policies. UNICEF also supports the Government to develop mechanisms to properly monitor and evaluate ECD in Rwanda, ensuring that ECD services reach all children and families, including the most vulnerable.


    Link to video on it's hosted site.
    Parents are a child's first teacher, but early childhood development centres like these provide an important gateway to the rest of a child's formal education.