First Years Last a Lifetime

As August comes into sight, many parents are beginning to think about ways to prepare their school-age children for the upcoming year. But as they start to run the necessary errands, what about the baby in the backseat? According to The Urban Child Institute, it’s never too early to begin preparing her too.

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First Years Last a Lifetime

The Urban Child Institute, a non-profit organization based in Memphis, helps educate the community about the developmental importance of the first three years in a child’s life. A new promotional video on the Institute’s website, part of their “First Years Last a Lifetime” campaign, encourages parents that positive interactions during the early years of a child’s life can help contribute to good grades in school, healthy behavior and relationships, and steady employment later on.

Although school and jobs may be far from the minds of parents of toddlers, the brain development that occurs during infancy sets the tone for the rest of a child’s life.

“These first few years create the foundation for the healthy development of a child’s mind and body,” says Scott Wilson, Director of Communications and Technology for The Institute. “It is during these years that the brain undergoes its most dramatic growth, setting the stage for socialization and emotional development. Language blossoms, basic motor abilities advance, thinking becomes more complex, and a child begins to understand his own feelings and those of others. From the first day of life to the first day of school, a child grows at a phenomenal pace that is unequaled at any other time of life.”

While linguistic, motor, cognitive, and social-emotional skills may sound like lofty concepts in relation to infants, there are some simple and practical things parents can do to help their children develop in these areas.

Simple Activities Can Make a Difference

The language development of a child begins when parents first start talking to him. Even when a baby is too young to understand the words, parents introduce him to the basic sounds that he will one day use to form his own words. Shared reading, too, gives children the chance to hear new vocabulary and see pictures that help connect words and concepts.

Everyday situations provide opportunities to promote a child’s motor skills. Bits of cereal on the breakfast table can improve dexterity when a child is encouraged to pick them up one by one. By handing him a spoon, a parent can start to teach him how to scoop liquid or dry foods from a cup. Small activities like these engage a child’s senses and help him to explore the world around him.

When a child is young, it’s exciting to see her master new cognitive abilities—and so rapidly! Parents can help their children learn fresh concepts even in informal situations. Shopping at the grocery store — usually a mundane task for adults — can be a world of excitement for young children. Each aisle provides examples of all sorts of shapes, colors, and textures that a child can learn from, especially when her parent takes the time to engage her about what she sees.

In addition to these tangible abilities — speaking, manipulating objects, and recognizing shapes and colors — children are also developing social-emotional skills during these first few years of life. These skills involve abilities such as expressing emotions appropriately, recognizing the feelings of others, and waiting for a turn in line. When a child expresses a particular emotion, a parent can foster these social-emotional skills by pointing out the emotion, helping her label it, and, if necessary, providing methods she can use to regulate it.

A strong foundation in each of these skill areas is beneficial for children and their development, but the effects extend far beyond the individual or family.

The Future of Our Community

“We are trying to impress on the community that what happens in the first few years lays the foundation for a lifetime,” says Wilson. “And just as important, this isn't just limited to kids and parents. The success of the first few years impacts the health of our community, the future of our education system, and even our own local economy and tax base. The effects of early child development are far-reaching.”

Danielle C. Smith is a Memphis-based writer who has a passion for children’s issues and frequently writes for The Urban Child Institute. This is one in a series of monthly guest columns on the importance of public/private investment in early childhood. It was originally published in The Commercial Appeal