Education is the key to success, both for individuals and for societies. Excitingly, countries across Africa are increasingly realizing this. That is why 100% of boys and 96% of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa now start primary school. However, there is still more to do to give children the best start in life. We now need to better prepare children for school before they get there. This will make school more helpful for children, and may reduce the number of children who drop out of school.
WHAT IS EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT?
Early Childhood Development means everything that can be done to support children’s learning, health and well-being, before they turn eight years old. It is sometimes confused with early years education or nursery school. However, Early Childhood Development is about more than just starting school earlier. Talking with children and helping them to learn through play is often more helpful than teaching them facts. For example, playgroups can be very effective, if they allow children to speak with adults and each other.
WHY IS EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT IMPORTANT?
When children are very young, their brains grow and develop very quickly. This means that focusing on children’s learning even before they start school helps them to achieve more in later life. In Bulakabya, a small village in Uganda, there used to be no Early Childhood Development program. Then, the charity Lively Minds starting running games for young children on a tarpaulin mat in a church. This helped them to improve their counting and spelling, and to get on better with each other. Lively Minds also ran classes for mothers, teaching them about keeping their children healthy. After attending Lively Minds’ playgroup, children were two times more likely to pass tests that decide whether they are “school-ready”. Illnesses such as diarrhoea and malaria also became less common.
The World Bank has found that children who benefit from good early childhood development are less likely to commit crimes, more likely to earn more when they grow up, and more likely to stay healthy. Every $6 spent on early childhood development is predicted to increase national income by $17 in the future.
HOW IS AFRICA IMPROVING EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT?
Some people might see early childhood development as unimportant, especially compared to school for older children. However, governments in Africa are realizing that it can really improve children’s chances of success in later life. Ethiopia has said that it will increase the proportion of children attending pre-school or nursery school from one in every 25 in 2009 to four in every five in 2020. Uganda’s government is also looking at changing its approach to early childhood development. Ghana has added two years of pre-school to its education system. Early years development could be a powerful way of improving children’s life chances, and it is exciting that governments in Africa, as well as elsewhere, are recognizing its importance.