Opportunities and obstacles to youngest children’s success

Research has shown that 90% of a child’s brain is fully developed by the age of five. High-quality early learning experiences have been proven critical to children’s rapidly developing neural connections. Movers & Makers invited five local experts in the field to share their perspectives on the importance and challenges of early child education and development. Responses were edited for clarity and space. 

Helene Harte
Helene Harte, Co-Director, Learning + Teaching Center, Professor of Education, Behavioral Science Department, University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash College

MOVERS & MAKERS: What is the single, most important factor in early child development and why? 

HARTE: It is experiences that build the architecture of the brain. When we talk to, read to, play games with and engage children, it facilitates their growth in all areas of development.

LANE: Environments can either propel children forward or can slow down the process of healthy development. But if we can provide high-quality classroom environments, we can help children by providing them with food, community and learning experiences that will spark their curiosity and learning, and help them to feel safe. 

WILLINS: Having a supportive, nurturing, responsive caregiver is essential to early development. This builds both security and trust and sets the stage for learning in all areas. 

ROWE: Language-rich home environments, where children’s needs for food and shelter are secure with minimal exposure to toxic stress, best set children on a trajectory for success.

Deanna Lane, Vice President, Family & Community Services, Learning Grove
Deanna Lane, Vice President, Family & Community Services, Learning Grove

M&M: What is the largest obstacle to early child development? What does that obstacle hinder? 

HARTE: Lack of opportunity and toxic stress are fairly big obstacles. Prolonged exposure to violence, abuse, neglect and poverty can impact children through adulthood. 

MOOMAW: Poverty. It is difficult to create a nurturant environment when families are struggling to provide food, shelter and medical care. Stress on families leads to stress on children, which hinders social-emotional development and cognitive growth.

WILLINS: All of the barriers that get in the way of mental wellness for families and children. Whether it is poverty, trauma or chronic stress, these all hinder a child’s ability to build a strong social-emotional foundation. It is critical for children to recognize and manage feelings in themselves and others. Learning ABCs, 123s, shapes and colors will be more impactful when children also know what to do when someone knocks over their blocks. 

ROWE: I am highly concerned that … there are efforts being made at the state level to provide minimal child development education to graduating high school students so that they can be deployed to work in early childhood settings as lead teachers. They are not prepared for that level of responsibility or decision-making.

Sally Moomaw, Associate Professor Emeritus, Early Childhood Education,
of Cincinnati
Sally Moomaw, Associate Professor Emeritus, Early Childhood Education, University of Cincinnati

M&M: What do you wish parents knew about early child development? 

HARTE: I wish parents knew they were already experts. They are their children’s first teachers, and they have funds of knowledge and expertise. No one knows their child as well as they do. The impactful things are free and simple. Talking to, playing with and interacting with children helps them to learn about the world around them. 

LANE: I wish the parents really understood the importance of using lots of language to talk with their children to encourage vocabulary and literacy. Even infants respond to language from their parents or caregiver. They begin to try and mimic these sounds as those connections are made in their brain to begin talking.

MOOMAW: I wish parents understood the need for unconditional love during the infant years along with the importance of interacting with infants, talking to them, and responding to their curiosity.

WILLINS: Back and forth interactions matter in terms of development. This can happen during playtime, mealtime, care routines, transitions – many types of interactions support connectivity that more complex learning can be built on over time. 

Tracey Rowe, Vice President, 
Ohio Programs,
Learning Grove
Tracey Rowe, Vice President, Ohio Programs, Learning Grove

M&M: How would you assess the value of creative play?

HARTE: Creative play is extremely valuable. Children need time to be children, to explore and fail and try again. They need to get dirty and ask questions and create. Even structured or guided play should follow children’s leads. We need to be aware of children’s interests, contexts, uniqueness and commonality. 

LANE: Children can be taught to memorize concepts, but this knowledge does not sustain them past third grade and beyond. Children should be in classrooms that allow them to be critical thinkers and discover knowledge on their own. 

MOOMAW: Play should be unstructured to encourage children’s imaginations and interactions. Adults should ensure a safe play environment and follow the child’s cues when joining in play.

WILLINS: The research is clear in that play is a crucial part of learning and is the most valuable “work” a young child can do. With creative play, it is important to focus on the process more than the product. 

ROWE: Research tells us that when children are provided the opportunity to learn by doing they are far more likely to make connections that will last. Children retain the learnings they achieve through hands-on experiences rather than those that come through rote learning and memorization. 

Marie Willins, Board President, Southwest Ohio Association for 
the Education 
of Young Children
Marie Willins, Board President, Southwest Ohio Association for the Education of Young Children

M&M: What is the most important recent discovery, either yours or another expert’s? 

HARTE: Recent research on the benefits of inclusion provides a reminder that children with disabilities and children without disabilities should be learning together. 

WILLINS: There is more information now known through imaging studies about what areas of the brain store, process, and use language. This is important in broadening our understanding of the positive impact in exposing children to language even prior to birth. 

LANE: One of my most important recent discoveries is that children are never too young to begin to notice differences about each other, in particular, racial differences. Children should understand that it’s okay to be different and that it is those differences that make each of us so unique. We want children to see color and appreciate the special differences we all possess that make us unique. 

ROWE: Children need to be in environments where teachers support the understanding that it’s okay to be different and that it is those differences that make each of us special and unique.

M&M: What are the ultimate, societal benefits of optimal early child development? 

HARTE: Society benefits when we look at all children as our children. We also have to remember that children do not grow and develop in isolation. Optimal child development happens when we support families, provide resources in communities and create the frameworks that allow children’s needs to be met. 

LANE: Children who thrive and grow up to be unique individuals who can think for themselves and contribute their talents and skills to the global community.

MOOMAW: Creation of a society of healthy, intelligent, productive citizens who can produce a stable, productive and nurturant society.

WILLINS: Aside from tangible savings in education and healthcare costs, we must also consider the benefits that come from supporting strong executive functioning and relational skills. The mental flexibility that optimal early child development provides supports our future growth as a society as a whole. 

ROWE: Children will grow up with the skills necessary to be problem solvers and critical thinkers who cherish and embrace those who are different from themselves.

M&M: What are the costs to society of failure? 

HARTE: The costs of failure are what we see in toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences, negative outcomes for physical and mental health. 

LANE: As people are getting worried about what children lost during COVID and our children not being ready for kindergarten, we are doing a lot of direct instruction [simple sharing of information, not experiences] and teaching to the test, so that we have good kindergarten results. But the reality is that when we only do direct instruction, children are in a worse position, because they have not learned how to think critically on their own, which is a skill that will sustain them for a lifetime.

WILLINS: A widening of the gaps of inequity. 

MOOMAW: Poverty, intellectual stagnation, mentally troubled citizens, discord, inability to work toward common societal goals.

M&M: What else should we know about the current status of early child education?

WILLINS: The role of equitable access to quality early care and education and the barriers that prevent this for working families. This is an issue for much of the workforce now.

ROWE: The consequences of a lack of funding at local, state and federal levels that support childcare. ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding is ending and many childcare programs will not be able to be financially viable without these types of dollars.

MOOMAW: What is the current status of the early child development field? The answer is serious decline. Childcare teachers are difficult to find, and when centers can find people to work, they are untrained. Colleges are not turning out early childhood teachers, in part because Ohio has done away with early childhood licensure and replaced it with elementary school licensure. Early childhood is the canary in the mine.

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