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Wednesday, November 21


Allison Black is currently the Communications Coordinator for the Atkinson Centre for Society and Child Development at OISE, University of Toronto.  Her involvement with the promotion of early child development (ECD) stretches back 8 years, and includes working with Fraser Mustard, Canada's champion of ECD and the co-author of the "Early Years Studies."  Black speaks with passion and eloquence about ECD.  Her enthusiasm is contagious; I find myself irate knowing that even with so much persuasive research available about the importance of this time in life, much of society is only beginning to recognize it.

For hundreds of years it has been known that our first years have a powerful influence on the life that follows.  While most of a baby's organs are formed during the period in utero, the brain continues to develop long after birth. Brain development during the first few years of life lays the foundation for what the brain will be capable of later on.  Recent research into ECD demonstrates the ways that society can help improve a child's chances of reaching their potential in these early years—and throughout their lifespan.  

One focus of research at the Atkinson Centre is early childhood education (ECE) and what ECE programs can do to help children meet developmental milestones. In a high quality program, the emphasis should be not only on the child but on the family as a whole. Given access to quality early learning environments for their children, parents are better supported in caring for them, and are better able to work or study and contribute to the economy. While high quality ECE programs are not inexpensive, a public investment in young children should result in a significant economic return. Immediate returns can be seen in the amount of taxes their parents pay when they are able to participate in the paid workforce.  Later on, savings can be seen as these children are statistically less likely to end up in prison, with mental health problems, or with substance abuse issues in adulthood.

Black has seen positive change during her time working in this field. Provincial and territorial governments have asserted the importance of the early years as the foundation of lifelong learning, behaviour, and health; and many jurisdictions are moving toward merging child care and education programs as early childhood becomes recognized as the first stage in a child's educational path.  In the early child development sector, there is a growing focus on the notion of childrens' rights. Specifically,  all children have basic human rights, including the right to food, clothing, housing, protection from harm, and education. November 20th is Universal Children's Day, a United Nations initiative acknowledging the importance of children. In Canada it is celebrated as National Children's Day to commemorate the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that Canada adopted in 1993.  We've still got a long way to go before we reach the Convention's goals, but we seem to be on the right track. 

I recently heard a This American Life episode on the unlikely state of Oklahoma being one of the first to adopt universal pre-school.  It's worth a listen.

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