Over the last few decades, the science of early development witnessed explosive growth. New technologies confirm the theories and hypotheses from earlier scientists. Infancy and early childhood is the first and most critical phase of human development. A child’s earliest experiences shape the structure of genes and the architecture of the developing brain and set the foundation for lifelong learning, behaviour and health.
While the science of early child development has marched briskly forward over the last 30 years, practice and policy lag behind. Early childhood programs have expanded in response to the needs of working parents, disadvantaged communities and increased school readiness overall, but they are disorganized and inconsistent across communities. Program overlaps exist alongside wide gaps is service. Eligibility rules, fees and location often thwart families’ efforts to access programs. Effective pedagogical approaches and early childhood education expertise are often lacking.
Public policy progress is even slower. Early childhood programs remain tremendously underfinanced and fragmented. The Organization for Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD) reports that Canada now spends the lowest amount per child on early childhood programs of all of the industrialized countries.
If managed properly, a public policy commitment to improving early childhood development could have transformative effects. It requires smart decisions about program and system design now to reach concrete goals over the next 10-year to 20-year period. It requires public investment in a system for early childhood comparable to the public investment made for education of children 6 to 18 years.
The Early Years Study, authored by the Hon. Margaret Norrie McCain and Dr. Fraser Mustard in 1999, recommended early child development and parenting centres linked to the school system and sensitive to local communities. Since 1999, initiatives in Toronto, South Australia and the United Kingdom used this vision to consolidate and expand existing early childhood programs into working models of early child development and parenting centres. Their collective efforts test-drive public policy for a more coherent early childhood system. These landmark initiatives live in real world conditions, making their documented innovations valuable learnings for other communities.
Early Years Study 2 (McCain, Mustard & Shanker, 2007) presented a long-term strategy to move from a chaotic array of early childhood programs and services to a more coherent system grounded in provincial and territorial education systems. A pan-Canadian alliance of decision-makers is needed to identify and promote the policy steps necessary to take on this strategy and transform the existing tangled web of child care, family support, early intervention, nursery school and kindergarten programs into an effective early childhood system.