For the past nine years, The Duchess of Cambridge and The Royal Foundation has been focused on early childhood, looking at how influences and experiences in the first few years of a child’s life go on to shape his or her future – and how they are often the cause of social challenges in later life, such as addiction, homelessness and poor mental health.
Working with early childhood experts and the NSPCC, the Duchess launched a UK-wide survey ‘to start a conversation on the under-fives in order to build the healthiest generation in history’. Quite an undertaking! The aim was to gain an insight into our attitudes and understandings of the formative years – the Early Years, from conception to age five.
Information was gathered from face-to-face questions (pre-Covid), observational research and an online survey which received more than 435,000 response from the UK. It included 5 Big Questions, centred around different aspects of the Early Years, including parents’ own mental health and wellbeing, the effects of the pandemic, and how important we perceive the Early Years to be in a child’s development.
Here are the Five Big Questions. What would your answers be?
1. What do you believe is most important for children growing up in the UK today to live a happy adult life?
a) Good physical and mental health
b) Good friendships and relationships
c) Access to opportunities
d) Access to good education
2. Which of these statements is closest to your opinion?
a) It is primarily the responsibility of parents to give children aged 0-5 the best chance of health and happiness
b) It is primarily the responsibility of others in society…
c) It is the shared responsibility of parents and others…
3. How much do you agree or disagree with this statement – The mental health and wellbeing of parents and carers has a great impact on the development of their child(ren)?
4. Which of the following is closest to your opinion of what influences how children develop from the start of pregnancy to age 5?
a) Mostly the traits a child is born with (ie. nature)
b) Mostly the experience of a child in the early years (ie. nurture)
c) Both nature and nurture equally
5. Which period of a child and young person’s life do you think is the most important for health and happiness in adulthood?
a) Start of pregnancy to 5
f) All equally important
Science tells us irrefutably that the conception to age 5 period is crucial.
One of the key takeaways from the survey was the gap between the science and our perception of the Early Years. It has been scientifically proven that they are the most vital years in terms of brain development and change. Up until the age of two, the brain develops fastest and grows more than at any other period in our lives. However, the report shows: “just over one in three parents (36%) does not recognise that the brain develops fastest in the conception to two years period, and one in four parents (24%) does not recognise that what parents do between birth and 18 months has a large impact on their child’s future.” This could be because we generally look out for physical markers – height, weight, etc – rather than cognitive, social and emotional changes. And it is these that set us up for the rest of our lives.
The survey results have now been published in full in a report and there were 5 Big Insights drawn as a result: https://www.royal.uk/5BigInsights. The report clearly shows that the key aspiration of all parents is that they want their child to be happy and they recognise that they have a key role to play in their child’s development – 88% of parents of a 0 to 5-year-old recognise that development in the conception to age 5 period is influenced by their environment (nurture) and just 7% of parents hold the belief that a child’s outcomes are wholly pre-determined by their genetics (nature).
The report’s findings were also discussed at an online forum in November with Early Years experts and The Duchess of Cambridge, who said, “Science shows that the early years are more pivotal for future health and happiness than any other period. 40% of children arrive at school with below expected levels of development.”
This shows the gap between how we currently interact with Early Years children and how we could do more. For example, the survey covers what we think schools’ roles are in the Early Years.
“Many parents regard primary schools as having a key role. Almost six in ten parents believe that schools and parents should be equally responsible for reading and writing (59%)…”
Does this mean that a large proportion of parents are underestimating the importance of their own interactions with their pre-school children and are leaving activities that encourage their child’s development until they are at school age?
The report recognises that most parents work hard to provide positive experiences for their children. “However, parents face juggling priorities, conflicting demands on their time, stress and exhaustion. They also feel judged by others at home and in the community, primarily for their child’s behaviour. Parents require support and understanding from the whole of society.”
So what can we do to create a positive impact on the Early Years?
Knowing that babies’ brains develop rapidly, the very best way of learning is interaction – talking and playing. Babies also respond to touch and affection – this is learning in action. Reading anything to them is good, but there are many books designed specifically for targeted age groups, which also encourage cognitive and interactive learning of colours, numbers and shapes through language and pictures. Read our previous blog post here for the Best Books for Babies 0 to 2.
Babies are naturally curious as everything is brand new. Let them explore your face, with all its textures. Make sure they get lots of outdoor time in different environments. And plenty of interaction with others, when the world returns to some semblance of normality. Babies and young children need interaction as much as we do.
For some ideas on how to help with your child’s language and communication skills, take a look at https://www.bbc.co.uk/tiny-happy-people, a free digital resource developed by BBC Education and supported by The Duchess of Cambridge.
The Royal Foundation Early Years Survey
The survey makes fascinating reading and is the largest of its kind to have ever been undertaken. You can access the full results here, or the summary here. It has led to experts calling for a national programme for everyone involved in the Early Years and for greater support for parents and their children. By working together, introducing a framework or legislative underpinning, we can embed the importance of the Early Years into our psyche, and focus our attention on building a solid root for our children. And we will start to see the changes in our future generations.
Photo: Baby Rex and his mum Alex © 2021 Mama Makes Books. Used with permission. All rights reserved.