Recently, I had the opportunity to join our regional Early Childhood Initiative (ECI) leaders for their spring statewide meeting. The ECI is the only project all Minnesota Initiative Foundations have worked on jointly in our 25-year history and I am amazed by how that tiny seed of an idea has grown into 86 thriving community coalitions since 2003! It was wonderful to hear what our teams are doing to make their communities or counties stronger places for our youngest children and how those efforts are helping shape school readiness for every child.
As part of the meeting we heard Dr. Megan Gunnar, a professor at the University of Minnesota Institute for Child Development, share what her research is revealing about children’s brain development and the impacts these early years have on them throughout life. I was reminded again how critical these first years are not only for the child, but also for us as a society. Dr. Gunnar shared that “genetics provide the hardware for every child, but early experiences are the software that drives the system.” While our communities cannot change the genetic raw material a child has, they can help ensure the experiences children have access to in the community are of the highest quality, assist them to be more school ready and are most likely to maximize their potential in later life.
Dr. Gunnar also affirmed that the major systems of our brains come ‘online’ sequentially during the first year of life and that much of the key early brain architecture is complete within the first five years. If children’s early experiences at home, in child care or pre-K programs and with caring adults in communities don’t ensure optimal brain development, the educational achievement gap will begin to be evident at as early as 18 months of age and only grows wider as they near Kindergarten entrance. Children of the same age enter our schools with vocabularies ranging from 600 words to over 5000 words based on their early experiences—that is a huge variable for that child to try to make up as they make their way through school and a costly endeavor for us as a society when we need children best prepared for life as productive, engaged adult workers and leaders.
This isn’t just an issue for our early educators or parents—not just for schools either. It affects us all and we all have a stake in making our corner of southwest Minnesota a better place for our youngest citizens—our future leaders, business owners and parents—to love, learn and thrive.
What will you do to help a young child thrive in your family and/or community?