Early Development is Foundation for Life

The mission of The Urban Child Institute is to increase understanding of the importance of brain development in the first three years of a child's life. We believe that focusing on these earliest years is the best and most cost-effective way to influence positive change in Memphis and Shelby County.

This month, the institute launched a new campaign focusing on Memphis' smallest residents: children ages 0 to 3. Coined Baby Small, the campaign is an informational initiative for Shelby County that emphasizes the critical nature of the 0- to 3-years period in a child's life. It is during this period that much of the foundation for later life is laid down.

A visit to the Baby Small website provides a review of the science of early brain development showing that the brain develops at an incredible rate during these first three years. For instance, a child is born with almost all the brain cells he or she will ever have. During the first three years a baby's brain grows to 80 percent of the size of an adult brain. During this rapid growth phase, the pathways are laid down that result in the infant being able to speak, to think and ultimately to make rational decisions. Some of these pathways are not fully mature until much later, but the foundations have been set.

While genes play an important role in brain development, research indicates that a child's environment, family structure and experiences during these early years are equally important in determining success in later life. The Baby Small campaign offers parents guidance about simple things that can be done to quite literally change the course of a child's life.

A public service announcement for television called "Touch, Talk, Read and Play" has been released as a complement to the Baby Small campaign. It includes tips about the importance of touching and hugging contact between parents and their baby; the importance of talking, reading and singing to young children; and allowing children to have time for unstructured play. These practices have been proved to influence everything from the development of self-confidence to improved vocabulary skills to improved attention spans. All of these factors are key for future development.

The Baby Small campaign is The Urban Child Institute's latest effort to get the word out about how we can improve the prospects for the youngest children and ultimately for Memphis and Shelby County. It adds to other campaigns the institute has already produced in support of its mission.

For example, one of our recent efforts has been the publication of a pamphlet called Parents' Guide to Kindergarten Readiness. This guide reviews the signs of healthy development during the first years of life, emphasizing the four areas that most influence kindergarten readiness — language and literacy skills, critical thinking, self-control and self-confidence. In addition, the guide lists 10 of the top local experiences a Memphis child ready for kindergarten should have experienced. Some of these are as simple as seeing the Mississippi River, going to the zoo and visiting The Children's Museum of Memphis.

Another initiative of the institute is a monthly online publication called "Research to Policy," designed to consider policy-relevant issues in early childhood development. This publication examines selected topics in early development from several perspectives: the science behind the issue; real-world practices associated with the issue; and the ways in which public-policy decisions and interventions might influence the issue, and the potential implications of these policies on the future of our community.

Earlier this year the institute published its seventh annual Data Book, a resource that compiles the best available demographic and research data on the status of children in Memphis and Shelby County.

Government leaders, service providers, educators and others in the community who wish to use the data to help influence positive change find the Data Book a valuable tool.

These examples show how The Urban Child Institute is involved in multiple initiatives in our community, all with the focus around brain development and early childhood. With the addition of the Baby Small campaign, we hope to increase the awareness of how each of us can influence future generations of citizens to ensure a thriving and prosperous Memphis.

Dr. Henry Herrod is a Senior Fellow at The Urban Child Institute. This is one in a series of monthly guest columns on the importance of public/private investment in early childhood. For more information, contact us.