2018 Jun 14
The first few years of our lives (from the time of our conception to our preschool years) have a significant impact on our development and future. Despite humans being able to constantly grow, adapt and thrive, it is a common fact that childhood, in general, is the most important age for progressive development. Recent research, however, has specifically directed our attention to the first 5 years of a child’s life. These years have now been deemed a critical window of opportunity in shaping and uplifting children!
Essentially, children of this age undergo rapid brain growth at lightning speeds – neural connections are said to grow at the speed of 1000 per second! Brain development in these early stages usually focuses on the Prefrontal Region, and this is linked with the child’s personality, planning abilities, and decision-making skills. All of these are vital components in a child’s ability to learn, adapt and thrive. However, these neural connections can be affected by positive and negative experiences. Negative experiences can actually hinder brain development, which can impact cognitive development.
In the light of these facts, UNICEF has set down 3 basic factors essential to maximize Early Child Development – Nutrition (Eat), Stimulation (Play) and Protection (Love). A positive reinforcement of all three has been associated with increased stability as well as 25% higher earnings in adulthood! The goal here is to realize that these beginning years are a cause worth investing in.
A generally well-known fact – an appropriate diet helps maintain optimal physical growth, lack of which often leads to lowered immunity and increased risks of infection. But nutrition is actually fundamental to brain growth and development. In fact, up to 75% of the energy derived from food goes toward brain development in under-fives.
Stimulation often involves play-time activities. These are simple yet incredibly effective ways of building a child’s skills. It teaches them how to better themselves- both physically and mentally – to get things done. A mere 5 minutes of play is said to spark 300,000 brain connections! Research has also linked higher forms of stimulation with that of higher language scores in later school life.
The last factor, Protection and Caregiving – often called nurturing care – is perhaps the most vital of them all. We live in a world where threat lurks constantly – be it through natural disasters, political instability, racial tensions, or more. These are all things no child should ever have to experience. Parents and caregivers often act as buffers during such times. This helps build up their stress management and resilience.
Child abuse and negligence are very much a real problem. Trauma at a young age can have lasting and deadly psychological effects. Violence at home often leads to an increased release of Cortisol – a hormone that can disrupt the brain’s structure and severely affect a child’s coping abilities in managing fear and anxiety. A lack of cognitive caregiving (such as reading) and social-emotional caregiving (for example, playing) can lead to delays in cognitive abilities as well as difficulty in connecting with others and maintaining other essential daily interactions. If you connect the dots, these difficulties can lead to general unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life in adulthood.
These three factors – Eat, Play and Love- may seem like obvious principles and simple ones at that. It is only when they are broken down that you can begin to realize the complexity behind them and the appalling consequences or lost potential in completely ignoring them.
Here are some of UNICEF’s current statistics:
- Across 74 countries, data suggests about 80% of children, aged 2-4, are regularly subject to violent discipline.
- Slightly more than 1 in 5 children under the age of 5 are inadequately supervised and subject to negligence.
- Across 64 countries, about 1 in 4 children, aged 3-5, do not experience any cognitive/ social-emotional caregiving.
- An estimate 17% of children under five are at risk of poor development due to stunted growth, resulting from poor nutrition.
What can you do?
A child’s first 5 years are filled with rapid growth. As a caregiver, parent or family member, this is the perfect chance for you to enhance your child’s cognitive capabilities! Don’t squander this opportunity. All your child needs is good nutrition, stimulation, and protection to be able to gain that maximum brain capacity. UNICEF also encourages parents to seek quality pre-school learning opportunities (between the ages of 3 and 5 years) for their kids, which are key in supporting social-emotional development as well as cognitive learning.
Unfortunately, not everyone understands the importance of quality preschool learning opportunities, or is able to send their children. In fact, over 50% of 3-5-year olds don’t currently attend preschool in Sri Lanka. This is why you have the option of supporting and donating to organizations invested in helping the youth of our country. In addition to this, UNICEF is petitioning the rights for every Sri Lankan child, wealthy or not, to have the very best start in life- as is what they deserve.
To sign UNICEF’s preschool petition and to watch UNICEF’s 2 min parenting masterclasses, featuring musician Jananath Warakagoda, former national rugby captain Fazil Marija, and broadcaster K C Pragash, showing how through Eat, Play and Love every parents can help grow their babies’ brains, visit www.unicef.lk/EatPlayLove