Children can be underestimated. They are born with the ability to absorb the world around them, and their experiences shape them in unique ways. The effects of early childhood development can have a significant impact on their success when it is time for school and future careers.

By age three, children’s brains are 82 percent of their adult size. It is vital to exercise the brain in its earliest years in order to reach developmental milestones later. Everyday activities like talking, reading and singing strengthen young children’s minds.

Trillions of neural synapses, or brain-cell connections, form in the first few years of a baby’s life. Connections will be lost indefinitely if a child is not stimulated with interaction and early experiences.

Playing, speaking and singing to babies prepares them to have a larger vocabulary, succeed in school and even increases their chance of graduating high school.

“The evidence is vast: exposing children before the age of five to stimulating environments strengthens their language development, social and emotional health, problem solving abilities, memory function, use of logic, analytical skills and ability to cope with new situations – leading to significantly better performance later in school,” said Alice Albright, Chief Executive Officer of Global Partnership for Education, in a Huffpost Education blog.

Albright points out that countries around the world have recently embraced the evidence and began to invest in their early childhood development programs.

Although early childhood development is important purely for the well-being of children, research has shown profound economic benefits as well. According to the Huffpost blog, for every dollar countries spend on pre-school programs, there is a $7 to $8 of economic, health and social progress.

Successful initiatives begin well before pre-school, with pre-natal maternal health, proper nutrition for breastfeeding mothers and adult caregiving skills.

Many cultures around the world benefit from classes that train the community to provide nurturing and age-appropriate activities in pre-school. Particularly low-income and disadvantaged communities often need extra efforts to create an engaging environment that will strengthen the cognitive development of children under two.

Quality early childhood care feeds a child’s ability to reach their full potential and contribute to their society.

Some obstacles developing countries encounter in establishing Early childhood care and education (ECCE) programs are a lack of funding, limited country capacity and low social demand. Organizations like Global Partnership for Education combat these barriers by providing technical and financial support, providing grants to finance the programs and supporting capacity development and knowledge sharing by pointing to the evidence.

Even though children do not talk back initially, they will learn and understand faster if they are engaged and spoken to. It is vital to educate populations around the world on the impact of early childhood care on development because it is not always prioritized simply for lack of knowledge. Quality ECCE can transform the resilience of communities and reap economic benefits.

Emily Ednoff

Photo: Flickr

Social Inclusion ProjectThe World Bank research supports the stance of many organizations around the world advocating for early childhood development (ECD) programs.

The Bulgarian government has been working to ensure increased educational opportunities for its youth with programs such as the Social Inclusion Project which was completed at the end of 2015.

The Project was designed to increase school readiness in children under the age of seven to ensure equal life choices, targeting low-income and marginalized families. The initiative has reached over 20,000 youth and the country’s kindergarten enrollment rate currently stands at 83 percent.

“Giving people the same life chances requires investments in early childhood development, providing kids, as one says here in Bulgaria, with their proper initial seven years,” said Markus Repnik, World Bank country manager for Bulgaria, in his address to the Minister and the government.

Repnik went on to say that “the project will provide these proper initial seven years for the most vulnerable children through pre-school training and services – so that these kids enter school at an equal footing, allowing them to successfully progress in their later education and life.”

Educational achievements correlate significantly with future employment opportunities. Productivity is declining in many Eastern European countries because many working-age people lack sufficient education to participate in the labor market.

Investing in ECD programs equips a generation to be conscientious, responsible and resilient especially during difficult economic conditions.

The Social Inclusion Project invested in infrastructure, building kindergartens and children centers and in services such as medical screenings, speech therapists, physiotherapists, pediatrician checkups and parental training.

This initiative was possible because stakeholders, policy makers and international partners decided to make a commitment to ECD.

By partnering with the World Bank, the Bulgarian Red Cross, UNICEF, the Bulgarian Pediatric Association and many other supporters, Bulgaria has equipped young people to pursue better jobs and ultimately have the ability to provide for future generations.

Emily Ednoff

Photo: Flickr

SOS Children’s Villages
SOS Children’s Villages is a nonprofit group whose mission is to provide every child with the opportunity to grow up in a loving home to secure their futures as successful adults.

This international organization was founded in 1949 by Hermann Gmeiner to help orphaned children in Europe rebuild their lives after World War II. Now, SOS Children’s Villages sponsors vulnerable children and fragmented families in 125 countries, across 12 different continents, with headquarters in Cambridge, United Kingdom.

SOS Children’s Villages aims to help families stay together by offering community outreach programs that provide each family with a development plan designed specifically for their needs.

The nonprofit offers aid to children who have lost their parents, those living in an orphaned household and those whose parents suffer from a life-threatening disease. Funding for these villages comes from donations, volunteer workers, corporate partnerships, fundraising and sponsorships that offer donors the chance to support an orphaned child.

Each child that lives in an SOS village receives guaranteed education and health care. Nearly 100,000 children are enrolled in 187 SOS primary and secondary schools. Tens of thousands of people attend the 51 SOS vocational training centers created to enhance employment opportunities.

“If SOS Children was not here, our children would have become street children, with all the risks this may cause. Today, we are proud of ourselves, and many of us have found dignity. We can now stand on our own feet,” said a mother in Dakar, Senegal, now able to find financial independence thanks to an SOS outreach program.

With 150 SOS villages in 45 African countries, more educational projects are run in Africa than in any other continent. According to UNICEF, educating young people can support economic resilience and stability, as children learn to address family vulnerabilities and gain skills for future employment.

A total of 79 SOS medical centers have been built by the organization, primarily in Africa and the Middle East. In more remote areas that lack clinic access, SOS children train local people in the medical field, passing on first-aid skills and health advice garnered from SOS family health awareness campaigns.

Because vulnerable children often live in non-democratic societies, SOS prides itself on strong communication with central and local governments that hold legal responsibility for the welfare of these children. According to SOS, this has allowed them to bring aid to children in Zimbabwe, where other organizations have been asked to leave.

“As a result of the various economic opportunities that were created for many vulnerable families since the inception of the project [SOS Children’s Villages Ghana], more than 78 percent of caregivers have become more self-reliant and are capable of accessing social services like health, education, water and sanitation without external support,” said Alexander Mar Kekula, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Ghana.

Kelsey Lay

Sources: Ghana Web, SOS Children’s Villages 1, SOS Children’s Villages 2, SOS Children’s Villages 3, SOS Children’s Villages 4, SOS Children’s Villages 5, UNICEF
Photo: Flickr

Facts About MalnutritionWhen focusing on the fight against poverty, hunger and malnutrition are two things that are frequently brought up. People tend to have an awareness of the concepts along with their prevalence, yet many facts tend to be ignored in discussions relating to malnutrition. Discussed below are the leading facts about malnutrition and their implications.

Top 10 Facts About Malnutrition

1. Two Billion People Worldwide Suffer from Malnutrition
Although malnutrition is often discussed as a problem, it is generally discussed as a problem of the unlucky few. Yet, the reality shows just how widespread the problem truly is. Two billion people, or nearly a third of the global population, suffer from malnutrition.

2. Two-Thirds of Those Suffering from Malnutrition Live in Asia
Although Asia is not the continent with the highest rate of malnutrition, it is the continent with the largest number of malnourished citizens. There is some good news on the issue, however, as the percentage of the population suffering from malnutrition in South Asia has fallen in recent years.

3. Almost 14 Percent of the Population in Developing Countries is Malnourished
The fact that malnutrition primarily affects developing countries tends not to surprise people. However, it is still shocking how widespread the problem is in these countries. More than one in nine people in developing countries suffer from malnutrition.

4. Scaling Up Programs to Target Malnutrition Worldwide Would Cost Only 11.8 Billion Dollars Per Year, According to the World Bank.
For context, the United States spent 618.7 billion dollars on military expenditures in 2013. The need for action is great, and action on behalf of the United States has never been more possible in the fight against hunger.

5. One in Four of the World’s Children is Stunted.
Being “stunted” is defined as having one’s physical and mental growth and development stalled due to a lack of food. This problem mainly impacts developing countries where the number has the potential to rise to one in three.

6. One in Four People in Sub-Saharan Africa are Malnourished
Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the greatest rate of malnutrition among its population. The global need to address malnutrition is a challenge, but with the unfair impact it has on regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, it is a challenge we must be willing to face.

7. Half of All Pregnant Women in Developing Countries are Anemic
Anemia, a possible result of malnutrition, causes 110,000 deaths each year during childbirth. Women as a whole also tend to suffer more from malnutrition due to often-sexist norms relating to the issue.

8. Underweight Children are 20 Times More Likely to Die Before the Age of Five
Malnutrition’s biggest victim, of course, is children. Along with the one in four children who are stunted by malnutrition, underweight children are victims of malnutrition. Underweight children, particularly those born to malnourished mothers, are 20 times more likely to die before the age of five.

9. One Third of Child Deaths Prior to the Age of Five are Caused by Malnutrition
As mentioned, malnutrition particularly harms children. Perhaps that harm to children is the most inexcusable aspect of malnutrition. One-third of child deaths prior to the age of five are caused by malnutrition, something that could be addressed through a deeper global focus on improving access to food worldwide.

10. It’s Getting Better, but There is Progress to be Made
So, here’s a little bit of good news: since 2009, the number of children receiving treatment for the acute malnutrition they suffer from has tripled. There is still progress to be made, however. Although the number of children receiving treatment has tripled, the number of children receiving treatment still remains as low as 15 percent.

Through understanding the facts that surround malnutrition, a shift can be made toward addressing the issue. The challenge is great and the global community’s ability and need to face that challenge is even more so. Only through a willingness to take action, can meaningful action be made.

– Andrew Michaels

Sources: USA Today, World Food Programme World Food Programme Action Against Hunger World Food Programme
Photo: Adfinitas

child development
Playing is fun! The importance of play goes beyond simply passing time or seeking health benefits. A study completed by scientist Jaak Panksepp supports the pre-existing hypothesis that play is critical to child development.

Panksepp, along with others in the scientific community, theorizes that humans, as social animals, need play to learn social rules and cues. Through sports, people form communication skills, learn cooperation and leadership and come to better understand others.

To test this idea, Panksepp experimented with rats. He isolated one group so they could not play, while allowing another group to play. When both groups were placed in the same cage, the rats that received more stimulation were better able to interact and mate than the rats that were not allowed to play.

A comparable study done on kittens by a different group of scientists observed similar results. The young cats that were unable to play failed to acquire certain social skills. And although the kittens that were deprived of play could still hunt well, they were more aggressive and had trouble fitting in socially with other cats.

Lack of play, especially at a young age, proves to be a serious problem. Panksepp concluded that, with play, both humans and animals learn to live in social groups, build relationships, express emotions and master skills that do not come instinctively.

The importance of play for child development cannot be understated, according to Panksepp and many others concerned with the health and well being of young people.

The U.N. and UNICEF hold play as a fundamental right for every child, and protect that right under Article 31 of the Convention of Right of the Child. Sport and recreation are essential components of a child’s education, allowing children to gain confidence and lead healthier, more balanced lives.

Unfortunately, children living in poverty and areas of conflict are the most deprived of play.

Children are denied their rights when they are forced to work at a young age. In an effort to support their families, poor children drop out of school and work long and hard jobs. Across the world, there are over 168 million child laborers. Laboring like adults prevents them from playing and gaining the important life skills that come with play.

War and violence also keep children from play. Those in conflict zones live in constant fear and cannot run and have fun outside. With current conflicts raging in Gaza, Iraq and Syria, to name a few, the impact of war on children’s lives today is extensive and pervasive.

Without play, children living in poverty and conflict are denied essential interactions. Childhood is a critical period to set the foundations for healthy development, and play acts as an important component to this growth. The study completed by Panksepp suggests that the conditions experienced by children in poverty and conflict can have long-term negative consequences on their development.

– Kathleen Egan

Sources: NPR, UNICEF, International Labor Organization

Ranking 182nd on the Human Development Index (the 6th lowest ranking on the planet,) Mali is recognized as one of the most nutritionally unstable and under developed countries in the world. About four in 10 children under the age of 5 are underweight, and one in four people are as well. As a study from 2014 indicates, over 1.5 million people are not sustained by a regular supply of food.

This landlocked country is often afflicted by droughts and insect infestations, which deplete the crops upon which they often rely on for food. While malnutrition in Mali afflicts the entire population, it is the second largest killer of children under the age of 5.

In her intensive ethnographic study of Magnambougou, Mali, “Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa,” however, Dr. Katherine Dettwyler suggests that rather than poverty, a lack of education surrounding nutrition is the main root of malnutrition in infants and young children. It is the mothers’ misunderstanding that it is not simply enough to give children food, but in the early stages of development, it is crucial to distribute the right kinds of food.

On one of her visits to Mali, Dettwyler examined a little girl with kwashiorkor, of which the primary symptom is swelling all over the body and particularly in the abdomen. The disease is a result of protein deficiency combined with a high caloric intake and often appears when the child cannot sustain the same level of protein intake after being weaned.

The mother who summoned Dettwyler called the disease “funu bana,” meaning “swelling sickness,” and believed her daughter caught it from another child. She begged Dettwyler for medicine to cure her daughter despite Dettwyler’s assurance that all her daughter needed was to have a higher quantity of protein slowly introduced to her diet.

Dettwyler also offers an anecdote regarding misconceptions about nutrition that occurred when she brought her young daughter Miranda to Mali. When the two were eating with some of the villagers and Dettwyler gave her piece of chicken to her daughter, she was immediately questioned. One man explained that good food should not be wasted on the young, because they have their whole lives to eat, while the old should be honored because they will soon die. Dettwyler, however, tried to explain that children should be the ones to receive the better food because they need the protein to fuel their growth.

Moreover, a large reason for the high child mortality rate due to malnutrition is because adults often have trouble identifying the signs of malnutrition. In her ethnography, Dettwyler notes that “people simply get used to the way children look. If the typical child is mildly to moderately malnourished, then that becomes the standard… normal is what you’re used to” In addition to providing emergency relief, Dettwyler, along with Action Against Hunger, argue that the key to combating malnutrition in Mali is education, and that teaching Malians how to identify malnourished children will be an enormous step in the process.

– Jordyn Horowitz

Sources: Action Against Hunger, Dancing Skeletons, WFP
Photo: Flickr