The significance of the early years of life are well documented by neuroscientists, educators, economists, behavioural scientists and biologists who indicate beyond doubt that early life conditions have a lasting effect. In his 1998 study on factors influencing health outcomes throughout life, Acheson found that mental illness, delinquency and unemployment stem in large part from predisposition to early adverse environments; if, on the other hand, high quality care is provided during the early years of a child’s life it has positive effects on a range of cognitive and non-cognitive variables like achievement scores and teenage pregnancy rates (Heckman, 2013). In fact, the 2009 survey in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that in 58 out of 65 countries, 15 year old students who had attended at least one year of pre-primary education outperformed those who had not, even accounting for socio-economic background (UNESCO, 2012, p.48).
A mediating factor is that the development of a child’s brain depends fundamentally on environmental stimulation and in particular, the quality of care, including nutrition and health care, a child receives (Als et al., 2004; Eluvathingal et al., 2006; Perry, 2002; Scrimshaw, 1998). Research suggests that high quality care leads to improved critical thinking and problem-solving skills, enhanced self-confidence and enhanced capacity to cooperate with and work well with others (Ashdown & Bernard, 2011; Aubrey et al., 2012; Schultz et al., 2011). On top of all of this, early childhood education programs also make sense from an economic perspective. Each dollar spent on early childhood education and care will eventually return 6 to 10 dollars partly due to the higher labor force productivity and lessened welfare costs (Temple & Reynolds, 2007). In fact, the annual return rate is estimated to be higher than for stock investment, even when benefits to physical health and mental health are ignored (Heckman et al., 2010).
The Convention on the Rights of Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 committed 192 countries to protect children’s rights to survival, development and protection (United Nations, 2006). Despite this global commitment and despite evidence as to its undeniable significance, quality early childhood education and care is not a right afforded to all children. For example, one in two children globally are not attending any pre-school education while in developing countries, this figure rises to five out of six (UNESCO, 2012, p.12). Underinvestment in public sector early childhood education and care is considered the major hindrance to improving enrolment rates, particularly in poorer countries and it is unlikely that fee-charging private sector pre-schools will help service poorer communities.
Even in countries where access to early childhood education is available, it may be hard to find programs designed to improve critical thinking, problem solving abilities or socio-emotional skills like empathy. A common focus is placed on structured lessons and the specific academic skills usually taught in these lessons, despite the fact that much research has argued against this in recent years (Gopnik, 2012; Heckman, 2007; Pahl & Barrett, 2007).
Against this backdrop, Building Blocks to Life has been created to provide tailored learning resources for children at their most formative years. Through these materials, we provide pieces of the puzzle necessary to address both limited access to early childhood care and education and the potentially one-sided focus of that education.
Our open-ended story format has the potential to enhance non-academic skills like ethical problem-solving and empathy. We are encouraged in our unique approach by the above-mentioned research about the probable influence of early childhood education on critical thinking, problem-solving and socio-emotional skills. In addition, literature that actively involves the reader can boost theory of mind (Kidd and Castano, 2013), while research has shown that a relationship exists between reading to children and attachment quality (Bus & van Ijzendoorn, 1995). The emphasis on so-called “transversal” skills doesn’t mean, however, that there won’t be other beneficial side effects; reading to children can improve language and reading proficiency (Swanson et al., 2011) and other cognitive skills (Kalb & van Ours, 2013).