Recent neuroscience studies suggest our brains are at their most malleable before the age of three. Infants therefore not only need the correct nutrition, but also the right kind of emotional and intellectual stimulus for their brains to develop to their full potential. A large research project conducted in the USA by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development concluded that parenting is the primary influence on a child’s life at this formative age. Researchers found that when parents engaged in certain important activities with their children, such as talking, reading and singing to them, and sitting on the floor to play with them (as well as providing a nutritious diet), children were much more likely to grow up into confident and secure adults who were employed and had formed stable families of their own.
Increasingly, governments are paying more attention to these crucial early years in a child’s life. In Brazil, family-based early education programmes have been running for over a decade in some regions, with a particular emphasis on giving advice and support to mothers in the raising of their children. For example, the Better Early Childhood or Primeira Infância Melhor (PIM) programme in Rio Grande do Sul was established in 2003 and uses family visitors to provide advice and resources to mothers in their local community.
Research focuses on preschool development
Research into early childhood development is also focusing on the role of pre-schools, which help to foster the skills young children need to develop for a learning environment. Recognising the importance of pre-schooling, in 2009, policymakers in Brazil therefore ratified a constitutional amendment to reduce the mandatory school age to four years old. Education officials in Brazil would like to achieve universal early childhood education by 2016.
However, there is still some way to go before this can become a reality. Currently in Brazil, there are around 12 million children under the age of six who are from low-income families and lack access to formal day care centres or pre-schools.
Some of these children are being reached by early education initiatives sponsored by private companies which donate packs of play equipment such as LEGO, CDS, toys, books and stationary, which are distributed among low-income families. But such schemes are seen as an interim measure for reaching poor children, because in the longer-term, the Brazilian government is committed to providing all young children with access to formal pre-school education.