BY CINDY HSIAO
Do you remember what your world was like when you were three? Perhaps it involves memories of your father teaching you to wait for the green light before you cross the road, your grandmother taking you and your friends to the local park, or waiting at the doctor’s office with your mother because you’re unwell?
Even from an early age, children’s development can already be impacted by interactions with a complex system of relationships, settings, and cultures. Adopting a holistic approach to early childhood development (ECD) is therefore crucial, if not essential. As such, the Asia Philanthropy Circle (APC) organised the APC ECD Forum; bringing together a stellar line-up of experts and guests from over ten countries, in hopes of pushing boundaries on how foundations and stakeholders in Asia think about holistic ECD programming in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
To design holistic ECD programmes, it is critical to consider the myriad of settings and relationships that can surround a child. Whilst Mirjam Schöning, Senior Consultant at viaEd, identified homes, centres and communities as the three key settings children spend most of their time in; she stressed the importance of considering often overlooked sub-settings within these larger settings—such as hospitals, playgrounds, bus stops, and supermarkets—which can offer critical opportunities for informal learning. Given that children rarely operate only in one setting and settings rarely operate independently from one another, it is also important to consider working across settings.
An example of an ECD solution that can work across settings is learning through play. Pushing boundaries on how learning is often articulated, Bo Stjerne Thomson, Chair of Learning Through Play and Vice President at The Lego Foundation shared that learning not only exists in schools, but also in diverse community settings. Learning through play, in particular, can be crucial to children’s holistic development. It enables children to iteratively practice skills such as cognitive and executive functions, creativity and resilience (think back to all the skills you used the last time you built a sandcastle); helps with longer information retention; and makes learning enjoyable. Most importantly, play can also be a powerful equaliser, with research finding that play can increase ECD impact for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. This finding makes play a particularly relevant consideration for ECD programmes in LMICs.
Another critical consideration for ECD programming in LMICs relates to the growing urban population and developing urban environment. Whilst over 50% of the population in LMICs now live in urban areas, Ankita Chachra, Director of Knowledge for Policy at Bernard van Leer Foundation (BvLF) pointed out that cities are often not designed with children in mind. Urban streets are often dominated by cars and motorcycles, exposing children to fumes given their height. Street signals and streetlights are designed for the able-bodied commuter and not for the walking speeds of children.
Drawing on BvLF’s Urban95 programme, which looks at early years from the lens of urban environment and systems, Ankita offered three entry points for redesigning cities that enable healthy interactions between children, caregivers and the environment: nature, clean air and proximity to services and healthy spaces through improving public spaces, mobility and neighbourhood planning. Whilst urban redesign can initially seem out of the realm of ECD programming, simple family-centred urban redesigns such as adding breastfeeding stations at bus stops for caregivers or a railing at 40cm at health centres for children to hold onto can play important roles in giving children a good start in life. Adopting a holistic approach, therefore, sometimes simply takes viewing the world at 95cm – the height of a 3-year-old.
Yet, we cannot remain at 95cm. Pushing boundaries on holistic ECD programming also necessitates being able to take a 30,000 feet view, especially when trying to tackle systemic challenges in a new location. It requires being able to identify and forge strong partnerships. As Nathan Koblintz, Portfolio Manager of Early Childhood Development in Adversity at Porticus shared, partnering with other foundations, forming an advisory forum with local governments and civil society representatives, and engaging a monitoring and learning partner are key to implementing programmes in a new location.
Equally important is recognising that systems change can be slow work—it takes time to generate data, build capacity of local stakeholders, and engage stakeholders in a participatory process. Being able to make a long-term commitment can therefore be crucial to ensuring an inclusive, evidence-based and holistic approach to ECD programming.
Another aspect to breaking new ground in ECD programming relates to pathways to scale. There are five potential pathways to scale, as offered by Mirjam: replication, model setting through creating a centre of excellence, changing policies at regional or national levels, using open source / digital platforms to accelerate scaling of evidence-based contents, and leveraging advocacy to change perceptions.
Using advocacy to create change can be particularly useful when there is a desire to shift government perceptions, policies and services. Jay Weatherill, CEO of Thrive by Five at the Minderoo Foundationshared that in this case, it is important to first create a pressure to change. Drawing from the Minderoo Foundation’s Strategic Communications Campaign, which aims to create a universally accessible high-quality ECD system for Australia, he identified three central elements in creating a pressure to change: public facing campaign (employing powerful narratives—such as brain development, cost of living pressures, economic benefit of investing in early years for job creation), inside track (building a group of experts and policymakers working behind closed doors to discuss how to move the system towards the desired goal), and stakeholder management arm (galvanising different child-focused professionals around a unified campaign goal).
To push boundaries and advance frontiers in ECD, Robyn Mildon, Founding Executive Director of Centre for Evidence and Implementation (CEI) and Acting Director of Centre for Holistic Initiatives for Learning and Development (CHILD) announced the exciting launch of the Regional APC Research on Impactful Interventions in Asia. This landscape study will take a systematic look at what is happening in parenting and early learning programmes targeting the prenatal period to around 3 years old in the Southeast Asia region. Parties interested in supporting this research can get in touch with APC. Ultimately, just as children are constantly growing, learning, and expanding their horizons; we too, must continue to push boundaries to ensure we are conceptualising, implementing and funding ECD programmes that are holistic and responsive to the complex systems and relationships that surround children. It may not be neat work, but it is only through engaging with the myriad of settings and relationships that surround and impact children, that we can ensure that children are given the best chances to thrive.