Thousands of women across our nation, who despite being mainly professionally unqualified and unskilled, are taking care of thousands of our children in so many informal and at times, formal ECD centres.  Despite their challenges, difficulties and shortcomings, they are helping build a nation.

It is imperative that we all work together to nurture our children, to let them experience the excitement and joy of learning and to provide them with a solid foundation for lifelong learning and development, in a safe and nurturing environment.

Over 40% of young children grow up in conditions of abject poverty and neglect.  Children raised in such poor families are most at risk of stunted growth, poor adjustment to school, increased repetition and school dropout.  Timely intervention can reverse the effects of early deprivation and maximise the development of potential.

Early Childhood Development is defined as an umbrella term that applies to the processes by which children from birth to at least seven years grow and thrive, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, morally and socially.

Growing evidence from child development research is that the largest part of brain development happens before a child reaches three years old and that it is during this period that children develop their abilities to think and speak, learn and reason and lay the foundation for their values and social behaviour as adults.

There is consensus that given a healthy start and a solid foundation in the first months and years of their lives, that children are less likely to suffer from illnesses, repeat grades, drop out or need remedial services. There is a growing appreciation that children’s needs and indivisible rights span the areas of health, nutrition, a safe environment and psychosocial and cognitive development.  Growing evidence shows that young children are capable learners and that suitable educational experience during pre-school years can have a positive impact on school learning.

It is widely acknowledged that the effects of what happens during the earliest months and years of a child’s life can last a lifetime. This is because the kind of early care a child receives from parents, pre-school teachers and caregivers determines how a child learns and relates in school and life in general.

It is during early care that a child develops all the key elements of emotional intelligence, namely confidence, curiosity, purposefulness, self-control, connectedness, capacity to communicate and co-operativeness.

The early years are also critical for the acquisition of the concepts, skills and attitudes that lay the foundation for lifelong learning. These include the acquisition of language, perception-motor skills required for learning to read and write, basic numeracy concepts and skills, problem-solving skills and a love of learning. With quality ECD provision, educational efficiency would improve, as children would acquire the basic concepts, skills and attitudes required for successful learning and development prior to or shortly after entering the system, therefore reducing their chances of failure. The system would also be freed of under-age and under-prepared learners, who have proven to be the most at risk in terms of school failure and drop-out. While it is never too late for children to improve in their health and development, to learn new skills, overcome fears or reflect on beliefs, more often it is the case that when they do not get the right start, they never catch up or reach their full potential.

Through childhood development research, the influences of the first three years on the rest of a child’s life are now well documented. Local and international research provides a wealth of evidence to show that the early years are critical for the development of the potential of human beings. This research has demonstrated that the period of gestation and the first seven years after birth are characterised by rapid physical, intellectual, emotional, social and moral development. For example, by the age of 2½ years, a child’s brain has achieved 50% of its adult weight, and by the age of 5, the brain has grown to 90% of its adult weight. In addition, many of the brain's structures and biochemical routes are developed in the first two years of life.

Unless the conditions under which poor children are raised and nurtured are addressed, the risk of irreversible brain damage and stunted physical development is inevitable for 40% of our children.

Intervening in the earliest years helps to reduce the social and economic disparities and race and genderinequalities that divide our society. For it is especially the children of our poor rural and underprivileged urban communities who are most likely to benefit from and who most urgently need investment in early childhood development.

Human development begins well before a child enters primary school.  The early years have also been recognised as the ideal phase for the transmission of the values that are essential for a peaceful, prosperous and democratic society. These values include respect for human rights, appreciation of diversity, tolerance, and justice.

Yet, while there is this growing consensus that what happens during these early months and years have dramatic consequences for the rest of childhood and adolescence, our children across the country are the most neglected in government’s policies, programmes and budgets.

The rights of young children

Very young children (0-3 years)

  • Protection from physical danger
  • Adequate nutrition and health care
  • Appropriate immunisations
  • An adult with whom to form attachment
  • An adult who can understand and respond to their signals
  • Things to look at, touch, hear, smell, taste
  • Opportunities to explore their world
  • Appropriate language stimulation
  • Support in acquiring new motor, language and thinking skills
  • A chance to develop some independence
  • Help in learning how to control their own behaviour
  • Opportunities to begin to learn to care for themselves
  • Daily opportunities to play with a variety of objects

Pre-school aged children, all of the above, plus:

  • Opportunities to develop fine motor skills
  • Encouragement of language through talking, being read to, singing
  • Activities that will develop a sense of mastery
  • Experimentation with pre-writing and pre-reading skills
  • Hands-on exploration for learning through action
  • Opportunities for taking responsibility and making choices
  • Encouragement to develop self-control, cooperation and persistence in completing projects
  • Support for their sense of self-worth
  • Opportunities for self-expression
  • Encouragement of creativity

References : The State of the World’s Children 2001. UNICEF.
Various other sources.