July 15, 2019

Early learning can build the skills young people need for jobs of the future

Over 80% of brain development happens by the age of three and 90% by five

Photo credit: Centre on the Developing Child

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

On Youth Skills Day, we look at how the development of children under five can prepare them for the attributes they need to succeed in education and the workplace.

"I may look like a baby - but I was born all grown up."

It's a line from the animated comedy film The Boss Baby - the story of a speaking youngster who wears a business suit and acts like an office manager! At one point, the Boss Baby addresses a team meeting of other toddlers - complete with presentation slides.

Behind that absurd situation lies a lot of truth. Children develop skills very early in their lives that will stay with them into adolescence and beyond, into the workplace. 

These skills will help them to fit in socially, to form relationships and to succeed at their jobs. They include communication, creative thinking, curiosity, empathy, self-confidence and teamwork.

“Learning starts before we are born and keeps going," Dr Eva Lloyd, Professor of Early Childhood at the Cass School of Education and Communities, University of East London, told Their News. 

"Children, especially in the early years, are like little sponges, absorbing all the information around them and then actively making sense of it." 

Those early skills form the building blocks needed for children and youth to develop the crucial capabilities to succeed at school and in the jobs of the future.

Today is World Youth Skills Day - which marks the challenges and successes of the 1.2 billion people aged 15 to 24. They are almost three times as likely as adults to be unemployed and technology is moving so fast that by 2030 an estimated 1.8 billion young people aged 18 to 29 will not have the skills or qualifications required to participate in the workforce.

Children start to develop skills of resourcefulness and collaboration at an early age

Photo credit: Jelleke Vanooteghem

Almost two billion jobs are also likely to become obsolete by then because of technological advances.

A report by Deloitte Global and the Global Business Coalition for Education said we're in a moment where companies can help to shape the future of how they train and develop their next workforce.

Preparing Tomorrow’s Workforce for the Fourth Industrial Revolution outlined four sets of skills that young people need to prepare them for the future workplace. They are workforce readiness, soft skills, technical skills and entrepreneurship.

Under those headings come a range of general skills that include problem-solving, collaboration, initiative, social norms, resourcefulness and optimism.

These and many others are among the skills that children start to develop in the early years. Children learn more things in the first five years than at any other time – over 80% of brain development happens by the age of three and 90% by five. 

Youth skills report

Preparing Tomorrow’s Workforce for the Fourth Industrial Revolution - from Deloitte Global and the Global Business Coalition for education - gives the business community a series of recommendations on how they can support skills. Read the report here.

Youngsters learn skills in various ways, such as interaction, stimulation and play. Just 15 minutes of play can spark thousands of connections in a baby's brain.

Some of the poorest children in Tanzania go to Play Labs run by the charity BRAC. Play Labs project manager and childhood development expert Janeth Malela said: “The aim is to make children participate in early learning activities in learning environments and to develop their cognitive, emotional, linguistic and numerical capabilities. They learn to communicate, socialise and become better prepared for school.

“It’s a space to play, to develop their language and games and improve their learning. We undertake a 10-month activity and follow a specific curriculum.”

Lifelong lessons are learned through play. What sinks and floats, mathematical concepts, vocabulary and storytelling, making friends. They all contribute to children being ready later in life to acquire further skills for education and employment.

"We do not know what the future holds for our children and generations to come, so we need to make sure that they can cope with whatever future challenges and opportunities they may face," said Sian Ward, assistant head and a computing lead at a London school, in a blog for The Times Educational Supplement.

There are two main "windows" for building skills - early childhood and adolescence

Photo credit: Tanaphong Toochinda

"To do this, children need to develop the skills to learn so that they can apply it to any context, whether that’s building the highest but most stable tower out of DUPLO as a four-year-old or creating a new bridge as an adult working as an engineer."

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University is a world-leading authority on early childhood development. It points out that there are two main "windows" for skill-building - early childhood and adolescence.

"Adults need certain capabilities to succeed in life and support the development of the next generation," says the centre website. "These capabilities help us to get and keep a job, provide responsive care for children, manage a household and contribute productively to the community.

"We are not born with these skills but we are born with the capacity to develop them through the right experiences and practice. 

"The foundation is built in early childhood. By age three, most children are already using executive function skills in simple ways (e.g., remembering and following simple rules). Ages three to five show a remarkable burst of improvement in the proficiency of these skills."

At a very early age, games like peekaboo and hiding encourage memory. Simply talking to an infant can build attention, while imaginary play helps children to develop self-regulation - a key skill later in life during stressful job situations.

Playing with children can help them to develop cognitive flexibility

Photo credit: Centre on the Developing Child

Cognitive flexibility - the capacity to switch gears and adjust to changing demands, priorities or perspectives - can be developed through games and play too.

All this adds up to an urgent need for countries and international donors to increase and prioritise their spending on early childhood education - something Theirworld has been campaigning to make happen.

We held a joint event with UNICEF in Washington, DC, in April to launch reports on the issue and to highlight the urgency and action needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals target of early childhood education for all by 2030.

Theirworld’s #WriteTheWrong campaign is mobilising over 1,000 youth campaigners, the business community and the public to draw greater attention to early education.

We are calling on national governments to spend 10% of their education budgets on pre-primary and for 10% of donors' humanitarian aid for education to go to pre-primary. Theirworld's donor scorecard revealed last year that just 1% of all aid funding for education goes to pre-primary.

The Global Business Coalition for Education launched the Youth Skills and Innovation Initiative last year to tackle these challenges by harnessing the innovation and creativity of youth and industry leaders to create, propagate, accelerate and disseminate successful models at scale to prepare the next generation of creators, makers, innovators, and designers to thrive.

The coalition believes the potential of young people and the workforce of the future can be harnessed if business leaders come together today to foster their innovation, entrepreneurial and technology skills.

  • Theirworld’s work on early childhood development is supported by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.
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