Spotlight on early childhood: Giving our kids a good start is not a game

*By Melea Rose-Waters, NC MomsRising

NC BoardI remember the board games of my childhood with a sense of nostalgia. Candy Land, Connect Four, Hungry Hippos, Operation, and Chutes and Ladders are just a few of the games that I remember playing with cousins and friends. I can imagine if I were to visit my 8-year-old self and ask her if she’d like to play a life-sized version of any of those games that I would have squealed with joy at the prospect!

This spring and summer, during the height of the legislative session, North Carolina MomsRising visited 7 cities along with a life-sized game of Chutes and Ladders comprising of a 40 foot long game board. Parents in the community, local elected officials, child care providers, business leaders, law makers were invited to come out and play the game which focused attention on the importance of investments in the children of our state. Families in Southport, Wilmington, Greenville, Goldsboro, Raleigh, Durham, Burlington, and Charlotte all came out for a day of fun and more than a few parents and children alike expressed how impressive they thought the board was. There were snacks, hula hoops, bubbles, crafts, and music for everyone to enjoy during breaks from the game. The board was moved from city to city, placed in parks, community centers, and even at the NC General Assembly.

While the children played the game, moving from square to square, sometimes landing on a ladder, which moved them up the board (and closer to winning) or sometimes landing on a dreaded chute (the slide that would send them backwards in the game), parents played along and read the information printed on the board. One ladder emphasized that high quality early education programs help our children succeed in school and life. A chute, or slide, sent the players back as they learned that in 2011, 30% of North Carolina children under the age of 5 lived in poverty.

The first 2000 days of a child’s life are when 90% of brain development occurs. It is astonishing to think that in these first five years leading up to a child’s first day in kindergarten are a time when the roadmap for future success can be cultivated, or deterred. Investments in quality, affordable early learning programs such as Smart Start and NC Pre-K have been linked many positive outcomes such as to lower high school dropout rates, improved social and emotional behavior, and increased learning potential as an adult. And to think – for every dollar spent on early learning saves taxpayers $7 in future government services. Talk about a great return on investment!

Children were in awe of the 40 foot game board and it was so much fun for them to actually become the game. Parents joined in and many commented that they weren’t aware of some of the dismal statistics on the board (such as NC’s disappointing rank of 48th in per pupil spending). The board had even more disappointing news to share. Infant mortality rates, which are used as an indicator of overall health, are one of the worst in the country for North Carolina. And over 40,000 families, who are already struggling as our economy slowly recovers, faced a wait for child care subsidies in 2012. Sadly, 1 in 11 children in North Carolina are uninsured.

While the emphasis was on playing the game, the message was clear: giving our kids a good start is not a game! Waiting until a child starts school is too late to start teaching our children and preparing them for success in school and in life. Early interventions are fundamental in starting the building blocks for happy, healthy, educated, and productive citizens who are the future of our state.

This post is part of a blog series on the crucial role of quality early childhood education and child care in caring for our youngest residents, creating thriving communities, and promoting a healthy economy. Learn more about the programs we are discussing this week.

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