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Experts Say Child's First 2,000 Days Critical To Development

Mark Urycki
State Impact Ohio

The new Ohio budget contains an extra $25 million aimed at providing high quality preschool experience for low income children. It’s a tiny amount compared to the number of pre-school children in Ohio. But some local districts are putting up money of their own. From President Obama down to local officials there is new interest in investing in childhood development from an early age. 

We all start as a single cell. But by the time we’re born we have several billion nerve cells and several trillions of connections. Early experiences make more connections and determine how a brain gets wired. 

Pediatrician Andrew Garner is a professor at Case Western Reserve’s Schubert Center for Child Studies. He says a child’s brain is learning even in utero.  Once they’re born they look to their parents.

“So at a young age – 6 weeks old – the baby realizes every time I smile a face appears and they smile back at me. And every time I coo they coo back at me I’m going to keep doing that, right? But if the only time I get attention is when I screaming all the time I’m going to be screaming all the time," Garner said. "So you can see how early on those early experiences make a big, big difference.”

The back and forth interaction with a parent has been compared to a tennis game – with a serve and a volley. Those first years could have a profound effect on a person, even into adulthood.

“The parent does something the child responds back.  It’s this volley back and forth.  It’s really, really important that nurturing engagement," Garner said. "That’s how kids learn. That’s literally how you build brains. And if we do a better job of building brains we’re going to have less problems with health and crime and education.”

But when mom and dad go to work who’s building that relationship? A baby sitter or daycare center may not be able to do that and the child’s development could be slowed. 

Education experts say high quality preschools are key in offering a stimulating but not stressful environment for learning.  But of the 144,000 4-year-olds in Ohio, 81 percent are NOT enrolled in a publicly funded preschool. That's according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education.

Professor Marty Lash of Kent State University says research shows children are best served through guided play by certified teachers. But toddlers don’t need to memorize a lot of facts and figures.

“Why spend all that time when there’s so many things to learn in the early years? Language, sharing, or playing," Lash said. "You want to have children exposed to physical, motor movement. But also music art, dance, the sciences, culture, social studies. You want to have them have a whole experience, not to have a program that’s over-focused on academics.”

Does play curriculum need a certified teacher? Lash says it’s best.

“We know that children need some repetitive play but what does the teacher put in there to disrupt that or get the child to think harder or get the child to explain what’s happening in that play,” she said.

That’s the philosophy at the Child Development Center at Kent State – a preschool and kindergarten that is also a laboratory school with both professional and student teachers.

Director Monica Miller Marsh says the teachers are actively involved.

“What you’re going to see is teachers asking questions of the children. Asking them to explain and articulate their thinking," Marsh said. "You’re going to hear them taking into account the children’s perspective… so multiple ways for children to express themselves and teachers pay attention and create the opportunities for that to happen.”

Marsh says the kids take risks and they learn social skills, indoors and out.

“They can experiment and explore with all kinds of materials, you see social interaction going on here over on the monkey bars. You see physicality as they’re sliding down the slides. Over here you see communication and collaboration. You see children exploring water and sand," she said. "Digging, the science and the math piece of it. Everything’s out here.”

When these kids are in the first grade or third grade, is what happens here going to transfer? Is it going to matter by the time they’re third graders?

“Absolutely! They’re building on all the things they’ve learned here. It’s not just the literacy, the math, and the science. It’s all those things, being a critical thinker" Marsh says, “asking good questions, being able to articulate and explain the answers to them. All those things will serve them well when they move into elementary school.“

Good interactions with teachers and other children at this age may provide benefits beyond the first grade. Experiments have found children who had attended high quality preschools and kindergartens have better high school graduation rates, fewer teen pregnancies, a better chance of getting a job, even better health as adults.  

Dr. Andrew Garner’s research on children found stress at home can hurt a child’s ability to learn at school. It actually changes the way a kid’s brain works. But he says it can mitigated.  

“The evidence is out there that early intervention, preschool environments, even home visiting programs - those that are really focusing on the relationships - they tend to have the biggest success," Garner said. “So it’s really about those social emotional skills we were talking about. Making sure kids feel safe and nurtured and valued early on.”

Garner says it’s worth investing now in early childhood care and education to avoid larger costs later.  Kids are resilient he says but the older they get the harder it will be to change.