December 22, 2017

2017: a year of advances and challenges for early childhood development

Every child in the world deserves to receive early years care and learning

Photo credit: Aravind Kumar

Elaine Hunter

Early childhood development writer

We look at some of the issues, headlines and surprising stories that emerged over the past 12 months around the crucial first five years of a child's life. 

The case for investing in early childhood development has been steadily growing in 2017.

By the time a child reaches five years old, 90% of their brain has already developed - which means the journey from birth to school is one of the most important of their lives.

Every young child should have access to the care they need, including nutrition, health, learning, play and protection, so they stand the best chance of fulfilling their potential.

But world leaders still aren’t giving it the attention it deserves. That’s why Theirworld’s #5for5 early childhood development campaign - launched last year - has been calling for early years care to be a priority.

We believe every country should spend 10% of its education budget on pre-primary and 10% of humanitarian aid to education should also go to pre-primary.

Here we take a look back at just some of the news and views around early childhood development that we reported on during 2017.

January

World's first professor of play

Playing became big news when a job was advertised for the world’s first professor of play at Cambridge University's Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL), which is funded by the LEGON Foundation.

“The value of play is relatively under-researched,” said Professor Anna Vignoles, interim director of PEDAL and a member of the university’s faculty of education. The job eventually went to Professor Paul Ramchandani, who will start in January.

Shakira says babies will drive business

Singer-songwriter Shakira called for investment in early childhood development and said “it is key to the future prosperity of children and society” in a speech at the World Economic Forum.

"Today’s babies will drive tomorrow’s business,” she said at the opening ceremony in Davos. “Children’s capacity to contribute will shape tomorrow's societies, will solve tomorrow's problems."

Playing is a vital part of a child's wellbeing and development

Photo credit: LEGO Foundation

February

High Fives for #5for5 campaign

Theirworld asked supporters and celebrities to give a high five to raise awareness of the importance of the first five years of a child’s life - when 90% of a child’s brain is developed.  

It was part of our #5for5 campaign on early childhood development - to ensure every child gets the proper nutrition, protection, stimulation, health and education during these tender years. A host of famous people joined in, including Stephen Fry, Sharon Osbourne, Kim Cattrall, Penny Lancaster, Audley Harrison and Jo Frost.

Womb with a view

More news emerged on when an unborn baby’s growth begins. Just 16 days after conception, way before you know you are pregnant, your unborn baby’s neural plate (the foundation of your baby's brain and spinal cord) is forming.

"At the same time, neural cells start travelling throughout the embryo to form the beginnings of nerves," says Heidi Murkoff, the author of What to Expect.

Theirworld also published a briefing paper on how to protect young children's brain development during humanitarian emergencies.

High Fives from these refugee children as part of our #5for5 campaign

Photo credit: Theirworld/Hussein Baydoun

March

15 years of saving lives

An event to mark 15 years of Theirworld’s support of the groundbreaking work being done at the Jennifer Brown Research Lab was held in Edinburgh. The lab is discovering more about why babies are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy and finding better ways to care for them.

It was set up by Theirworld President Sarah Brown and husband Gordon - the former British Prime Minister - in memory of their first child Jennifer. She was born at 33 weeks and died after just 10 days in 2002.

Malnutrition crisis in Somalia

An estimated 200 million children under five in the developing world have significantly impaired growth, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization - many of them in Somalia.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the challenges facing Somalia - a combination of hunger, drought, conflict and disease - require a massive response. Almost 950,000 children under five were facing acute malnourishment in 2017.

Marshalling support for Africa's children

An ambitious plan has been drawn up to help millions of young people in Africa have a successful future. But the Marshall Plan for Africa - devised by Germany - makes no mention of investing to support the development of children under five.

So Theirworld's Global Youth Ambassadors - our network of young people advocating for education change - wrote to Germany's development minister Gerd Muller, asking for that to be rectified.

The Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory is investigating how premature babies develop

April

Two years after the Nepal earthquake

We reported that malnutrition among the country’s poorest children is still the biggest challenge – 24 months after the devastation which killed almost 9000 people. Charities like the Nepal Youth Foundation believe feeding children as part of their early childhood development programmes is essential.

A future for Palestinian under-fives

Only one-third of all Palestinian four and five-year-olds in the West Bank and Gaza are enrolled in preschool. As many as 38% of children in Gaza have stunted growth and over 50% of preschool-aged children are anaemic.

One organisation - American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) - is helping to rebuild a future for young children in Palestine and Lebanon by investing in upgrading preschools, training teachers, producing resources and leading the way in developing a national early childhood development strategy.

Nepal’s youngest, most vulnerable children were devastated by the earthquake of 2015

Photo credit: Nepal Youth Foundation

May

Helping disabled children in Kenya

In Kenya's slums, if a couple has a disabled child, fathers often leave or the family will hide the child. There are no funds to help families who have a disabled child – and 80% of primary and secondary schools have no special toilets for children who are disabled.

Total Rehab Centre is a non-profit community-based organisation registered by the ministry of gender, children and social development. We told how director Teresia Njeru has dedicated her life to helping disabled children who are brought by parents.

June

Inside the mind of a child

Do we really know what goes on in a young child’s mind? How do they express themselves? We got a bit of an insight - thanks to some preschoolers in Malawi, Mexico, Nepal and Palestine.

As part of Theirworld's #5for5 campaign, we asked charity and school workers to speak to children and ask them to draw something about their day or their family

...And celebs get in touch with their inner child

Seven well-known comedians made a series of fun videos with serious messages to support Theirworld's #5for5 campaign which racked up more than 1.1 million views on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Our videos featured British TV and film star Matt Lucas; Rainn Wilson - from the US version of TV show The Office; Kenyan comedian Carolyne "Teacher" Wanjiku; and stand-up comedians Jackie Tohn, Wendy Liebman, Shappi Khorsandi and Nish Kumar. All of them dressed up as babies to spread the message about investing in young children's development.

The comedians who featured in our #5for5 videos

July

Childhood care and conservation side by side

Away from Delhi's tourist trails, an early childhood care programme is working as part of an overall development and conservation plan for a historic district. 

We told how Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative, part of Aga Khan Development Network's historic cities programme oversees seven nurseries that use a unique early childhood care model.    

Cash boost for Tanzania ECD

A $12 million cash injection from the UK to help young children in Tanzania was welcomed by an early childhood development expert who said it will also boost primary school enrolment. 

ECD expert Janeth Malela, who is working with the charity BRAC Tanzania as project manager of its Play Labs, confirmed she will be involved in the initiative. She added: “This is such a good opportunity for Tanzania as there are gaps in early childhood development, hygiene and sanitation here."

Children from Delhi take part in activities that help develop numeracy and literacy skills

Photo credit: Preethi Nallu

August

Babies and a second language

New research showed that babies and toddlers from a single-language household can learn a foreign language - in just ONE hour a day.

The method – which many parents use naturally – has been named as "parentese" or “infant-directed speech”. It’s the style parents use to talk to their babies, which has simpler grammar, higher and exaggerated pitch, and drawn-out vowels.

Toxic stress of Syrian children

A child protection report by UNICEF and other agencies said the "relentless violence and dire humanitarian situation in Syria are having a devastating impact on the protection of children of all ages."

It added: "Toxic stress may result in significant lifelong consequences for children’s cognitive, social and emotional development." It followed warnings from Theirworld last year that lack of planning for and financing early childhood development services in emergencies needed urgent attention.

"Infant-directed" speech can help babies and toddlers to learn a second language

September

We call for pre-primary education to get 10% of spending

A scorecard published by Theirworld revealed the development of millions of children will suffer unless governments step up and increase their commitment to pre-primary education for every child.

It showed pre-primary is one of the most neglected areas of education aid - receiving less than 1% of the $11.7 billion globally. Not one donor is meeting the minimum benchmark and many lag way behind.

Theirworld called for all donors to spend at least 10% of education aid on pre-primary and for countries to spend 10% of their education budgets on pre-primary.

... and so does UNICEF

That was soon followed by a major UNICEF report that urged governments and partners to invest urgently in services that give young children the best start in life.

That included devoting 10% of national education budgets to pre-primary, saying this “will greatly expand the number of children with access to early learning opportunities”. UNICEF also said all countries should deliver two years of free pre-primary education for every child.

Only one in three of all Palestinian four and five-year-olds are enrolled in preschool

Photo credit: ANERA / Ron Cello

October

Dads have vital role in development

Young children whose fathers are involved in their upbringing often have a better outcome in life. Studies show that babies whose dads are "hands on" and "fun" actually learn faster.

We looked at the issue of fathers' involvement in raising children. In many countries and cultures, bringing up children is still looked on as being a mother’s job.

November

South Africa's poor children being left behind

Children under six who live in rural areas of South Africa are being denied vital education and other services. Almost half of young children do not have access to basic services – and that could affect them for the rest of their lives.

The gap between the poorest children and the rest of the country is also widening, according to the South African Early Childhood Review 2017

Many of South Africa's rural children are missing out on the building blocks of early childhood development

Photo credit: Ilifa Labantwana

Call for UK to increase ECD funding abroad

A report from the British Parliament called for the Department for International Development to increase its financing for education - and prioritise early childhood development.

Early years education for children in low-income countries has become a "high priority", it said. The news came as it was revealed 85% of children in the developing world don’t have access to pre-primary education. 

Groundbreaking research on premature babies

Scientists at the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory in Edinburgh have made a discovery that could improve the future for many young children. Pioneering research into premature babies could help to identify children who may need extra learning support before they go to school.

The “groundbreaking” research by scientists in Edinburgh strengthens calls for more investment in the development of children from birth to age five.The Theirworld-funded team at the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory has discovered that the brain architecture known to support lifelong learning is present before a baby is born.

Pioneering research into premature babies could help to identify children who may need extra learning support before they go to school

Photo credit: Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory

December

Yemen's youngest in real danger

Millions of people are suffering in the appalling humanitarian crisis that has gripped Yemen - and the hardest-hit are the very young. A child is dying every 10 minutes from "preventable causes", including malnutrition, cholera, diphtheria and the war itself.

The most vulnerable, those children under the age of five, are being abandoned to “stare death in the face,” according to the UN, which said 80% of children are now "in desperate need of aid".

Food crisis in DRC too

There's a similarly depressing scenario in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 400,000 children under five are at risk of dying within months through malnutrition.

More than 750,000 children are badly malnourished. Those who do survive the conflict, displacement and hunger crisis are at serious risk of stunted growth through an ongoing lack of proper nourishment

Children in Yemen are living on the brink of famine and widespread malnutrition has drastically increased their risk of disease

Photo credit: UNICEF / Al-Karim
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