Why Investing in Early Childhood Matters

Early childhood is the most critical phase of human development. It begins before birth, when a baby’s body and brain are being formed, continues through early infancy when key relationships are established and developmental milestones reached, and includes the preschool years and the transition into the early grades of schooling.

Why does early childhood development matter?

Numerous lines of research confirm every parent’s observation that this is a period of rapid physical and mental growth and change. Children learn to move, communicate, and interact with the world, and develop a sense of personal and cultural identity. Early childhood offers the greatest opportunities for positive human development, but is also the period when children are most at risk. Negative influences on a child’s development during early childhood can be irreversible.

Young children growing up in especially difficult circumstances—severe poverty, malnutrition, wars, and disease—require particular attention. Discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, disability, HIV and AIDS status, class/caste, or political and religious beliefs all adversely affect early childhood. Discrimination can exclude children from full participation in society, reduce survival rates and quality of life, and undermine feelings of well-being and self-esteem. 

What are the best ways to improve a child’s early development?

Positive interventions in early childhood work best when they bring together a variety of sectors including nutrition, health, education, and support for parents. Research conclusively demonstrates the impact of well-planned interventions.

Children who live in the most adverse circumstances can make the biggest gains in their intellectual, social, emotional, and physical progress if they have good nutrition, interaction, and relationships early in their lives and have access to high-quality early childhood development services.

These children are healthy and ready for school, finish more years of education, get better jobs, and live longer than their parents. Investing in early childhood programs for the most disadvantaged can break the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Recognizing the importance of early childhood is also about respecting the rights of every young child, as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention requires families, communities, and states to provide appropriate support for young children’s development, while recognizing the diversity of cultural beliefs and practices that shape childhood. A positive early childhood is both every child’s entitlement and an investment in their—and our—future.

Why is this issue integral to an open society?

The early years are the foundation upon which open societies are built. They offer a unique opportunity to shape healthier, more prosperous, stable, and participatory societies.

Quality early childhood interventions have the greatest impact on children most at risk, offering an unparalleled opportunity to alleviate the effects of social disadvantage and to break cycles of poverty and inequality.

What are the Open Society Foundations doing to support early childhood development?

Through our Early Childhood Program, we aim to improve the quality and availability of early childhood services, including home-based initiatives and community programs as well as preschools. The goal is to both empower and hold accountable government, donors, professionals, civil society organizations, parents, and communities to fulfill their respective roles to guarantee the right of each child to develop to his or her full potential.

Highlights from our work include:

  • In Peru, we are working with the Ministry of Social Inclusion to roll out the Cuna Mas program, which provides quality care for more than 60,000 of Peru’s poorest children under the age of three.
  • In Liberia, in partnership with the Ministry of Education, we’re helping create the first national early childhood curriculum. We’re also working with community organizations in Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe to improve early childhood services.
  • We support the Asia-Pacific Regional Network for Early Childhood, whose website is an essential source of information and exchange about good early childhood practice in 47 countries.
  • We led reform of early childhood education systems in 28 countries in Central Eastern Europe and Eurasia, and continue to support the International Step by Step Association, which focuses on improving equity through increasing the quality and accessibility of early childhood services.