The first three years of life is a critical period of rapid physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional development of a child. In light of the recent research conducted in the field of neuroscience, the rapid changes that characterize early years are explained with the fact that the brain is more susceptible to environmental stimuli and develops much faster with experience compared to other developmental periods.
A large body of research supports that all children need environmental stimulation such as a language rich environment, sensitive interactions, and opportunities for play and exploration to fulfill their potential at the highest level. The environmental stimuli and experiences in the first three years of life serve as important ways to make connections among the 100 billion brain cells and create the neural networks that support the development of memory, emotions, behaviour, movement, and language skills. The foundations of brain development are laid through these experiences at the earliest ages, and about 85% of the brain development takes place in the first three years of life.
Early childhood should be regarded as a period of opportunity because the brain development needs caregivers’ natural resources such as love, attention, and play. Supporting early childhood development in the first three years increases children’s chances to become healthy, develop secure attachment, attain self-regulation competence and develop cognitive skills later in childhood as well as attain a higher education level in the long-term and become productive citizens.
Supporting early childhood development is of great importance not only for the individual development of young children, but also for the economy and sustainable development of the countries. The cost of what we can do to support a child’s development is very low, and the return is much higher than one thinks. According to research by Nobel Prize-winning scientist James Heckman and his colleagues, every $1 investment in the first 6 years returns $7 to $10 to the economy.
On the other hand, growing up under conditions of major stress and poverty in the first three years of life exacerbates children’s development more deeply than any other developmental period. Developmental disparities emerge very early in life and can become larger over time, if not intervened early. Scientific research on early childhood calls attention to the heavy cost of inaction for young children with respect to the later psychological, social, and economic implications. Children who cannot fulfill their developmental potential, are less likely to enter qualified labor force and more likely to benefit from health, special education, and psychological as well as social services, thereby increasing such expenses in the long term.
Children under the age of 4 years constitute about 8% of the total population in Turkey. This percentage represents the highest childhood population among the European Union country members. Considering that one out of four children comes from poor families, taking steps to improve the well-being of young children and to contribute to their development should be among the top priorities of the social policies in Turkey.