Early childhood care and education is the first stage of lifelong learning and development. It lays the necessary foundation for building higher-level cognitive and non-cognitive skills and has the potential of breaking down inequity in learning from the beginning by leveraging the tremendous capacity of early brain development and function. Most importantly, it can have a serious impact on the education of adolescent girls later on in life.
That’s why I was honoured to share a panel on the importance of early childhood education and care with UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake and Nobel Laureate Economist Professor James Heckman at the World Education Forum from May 19-22 in Incheon, South Korea. For me, learning started when I was a baby. I know this because I know my parents – and education has always been their number one priority.
Even before I was old enough for kindergarten, my father and I frequently went to the library together to read. My parents were still recent immigrants in Canada, where we live. At the library, there were literacy and support programmes. I remember that I loved the maps and photographs in geography books – especially pop up books with pieces I could touch.
My parents encouraged my interest and they sacrificed a lot so I would have a good education. I have no doubt that these early experiences formed my interest in books and the world and set me on my current path as a student and an advocate for education.
I know from my own journey that there is a direct connection between what a child learns early in life and what happens later. As an advocate for adolescent girls, I have travelled a lot. I have met girls my age and younger who are mothers. For very young mothers, it is incredibly important that they have knowledge, resources, programmes and support to help them provide their children with a good start in life. If we support these young mothers, we are also providing their babies with a fair chance to grow into young people and adults who can make the world a better place.
I think it is up to youth advocates like me – advocates who see the benefits of a strong early start in life – to speak about the issue.
Unfortunately, one of the reasons we are discussing this topic today is because not all children have access to early learning and care. Most of the children who go to pre-primary school live in more wealthy countries. In low-income countries, pre-primary enrollment ratios are only 19 per cent.These disparities in early childhood learning between wealthy and poor are not fair.
Over time, they also compound and the children who miss out early face ever greater challenges as they get older. Investing in learning from a child’s very earliest days is one of the best ways we have to make sure that all children – no matter where they live or who their parents are – have a good start in life.
Many of the individuals gathered at the World Education Forum for important discussions about investment in education and the Sustainable Development Goals. I came to the Forum to ask all to start early – to start investing and prioritizing learning for all children from the very earliest days of their lives. I can tell you from my personal experience: Those very first learning experiences make all the difference – they can change a girl’s life.