By Erica Oakley, Humanitas Global
A growth-stunted toddler has an underdeveloped brain. Now fast forward twenty years later and his income is 25% higher than his non-stunted peer. How is that possible?
One word: PLAY!
In evaluating the long-term impact of an early childhood development (ECD) intervention, a recent study in Science showed that growth-stunted toddlers in Jamaica who participated in a psychosocial stimulation intervention were not only able to catch up with their non-stunted peers but two decades later, were earning 25% more.
How is that possible?
For two years, community health workers made hourly visits to mothers, teaching the mothers parenting skills and training them how to help their children develop “cognitive, language, and psychosocial skills.” Mothers were encouraged to use items from the home, such as a cup or spoon, so the child would develop an understanding of his or her environment.
As noted in the 2007 Lancet Child Development in Developing Countries Series, more than 200 million children less than 5 years of age never reach their full potential. Just as those in the Jamaica study, these children fall behind cognitively due to the impacts of poverty, hunger, disease and lack of stimulation – resulting in stunting. Interestingly, the Jamaica study finds that effects of stunting can be reversed and that a child engaged in play and learning no longer has to fall behind their well-nourished counterparts.
This is a game changer. We know that play is a building block of life. It goes beyond giving children an opportunity to enjoy childhood, but is instrumental in the development of children – physical, social, emotional and cognitive, especially within those early formative before the age of 5. With stunted children, we often assume that they will not learn as easily, earn as much, or be as productive as their non-stunted peers. However, the findings of this study challenge that notion.
The early stimulation intervention done through play did more than just engage the child; it had long-term social and economic impact. This study shows that we need to focus our energies on not only ensuring that children receive adequate nutrition or have access to health care, but are also engaged mentally.
Studies like the one done in Jamaica demonstrate to the international community that recognizing play as a powerful tool can improve the outcome of disadvantaged children in developed and developing countries alike, and help turn the tide on some of our greatest long-term development challenges.