“The magic years” is a term often used to describe the sense of wonderment and empowerment experienced by young children, but for specialists in early child development, there’s one age that’s particularly magical: the age of 5.
“Ninety per cent of your brain is developed by the time that you’re five years old,” said Neria Aylward in a phone interview this week.
Aylward become executive director of the Jimmy Pratt Foundation in St. John’s last year. At 25, she already has a master’s degree in development studies from Oxford after doing an undergraduate degree in social anthropology at Cambridge.
The foundation has lobbied for years to improve health and emotional outcomes for children in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Many parents focus on the more academic side of their child's learning — language skills and math — but Aylward says the soci-emotional development of children in the first few years is crucial to everything that comes afterwards.
And she’s not alone in saying that.
“We know that the most economically beneficial interventions that are available are in childhood development,” Dr. Pat Parfrey told The Telegram earlier this week.
Parfrey, co-chair of the Health Accord task force along with Sister Elizabeth Davis, will be holding its last round of town halls from Nov. 22-24 before releasing its final report on restructuring the province’s health-care system in mid-December.
The task force will consult the public one more time in January before drafting a master plan for the next 10 years.
That plan will touch on every aspect of community health, including social determinants that have more to do with health outcomes than actual infrastructure itself.
Aylward said kids that first enter kindergarten are usually all over the square when it comes to reading skills. Some can read a bit, others can’t read a word, and teachers usually don’t fret either way.
“That’s not so much something that they worry about. They know that by the end of the year, they’ll all be reading. You can learn that,” she said.
“What they’re more worried about are the kids who don’t know how to stand in line, kids who don’t know how to wait their turn, who don’t know how to play with other kids. And it’s those kind of soft skills that are the foundation upon which people grow and learn to live in relationship to one another.”
Kids, like adults, can be resilient, but Aylward says bad experiences in the early years can present big challenges later on.
“One in four kids in Canada is identified by the age of 5 (as being) vulnerable when they’re entering school, and that’s really, really hard to catch up on,” she said.
“Kids who are behind when they’re 5 years old are less likely to graduate high school, they’re more like to need special education, and the knock-on effects go on and on.
Poverty is one of the key indicators for early problems. Parents may be dealing with everything from addictions to mental illness to food insecurity.
“Parents are the child’s first teacher, for the most part, and supporting parents is super important,” Aylward said.
She said this province, and Canada as a whole, are behind when it comes to looking at early childhood development as an entitlement, as school is once a child reaches the age of 5.
“We’re actually the bottom of the heap in other developed countries … in terms of early childhood education. We’re down there with the U.S.,” she said. In Finland, for example, putting a child in day care is as much a right as putting them in school.“These are people, these are citizens, who just happen to be under the age of 5 and have very little control over their life circumstances,” she said.
And that’s why Aylward feels Ottawa’s recent daycare deals with provinces are transformational.
“This is the investment of a generation. And I feel like a lot of people don’t know about it or don’t have a sense that it affects them,” she said of the $10-a-day guarantee that’s slated to be phased in over the next two years.
“You can look at it two ways. You can look at it as somewhere to park the kids so that parents can get back to work, or you can look at it … perhaps more importantly, to meet their development goals and trajectories,” she said. “Those two things can really go together, but we really have to have a sense that early childhood education is important.”
Aylward acknowledged there’s an immediate conflict between private daycares — which make up 70 per cent of the capacity in the province — and registered daycares, which can sign onto the federal program.
While there’s room for private services, she says, advocates have always known that a universal system cannot work in a for-profit market.
“It’s not a for-profit enterprise, no matter how you tinker with a market model, we’ve realized it’s just not going to work,” she said.
In the meantime, programs such as the Cloudberry Forest School hosted by O’Brien’s Farm, where children are supervised by experienced staff as they explore nature, can serve as an ideal model for preschool learning.
“That’s early childhood education,” she said.
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram