A few weeks ago, a question caught me by surprise: what age is best to send your child to daycare? The question came from a parent during a live event where I was discussing my reporting on daycares in southern Italy.

A couple of years ago, I argued that every child should have the right to daycare. I explained that there are solid neuroscientific, economic and societal reasons to make sure we invest in the idea of education from the very beginning of life.

What I was probably missing in my reasoning at the time was the word *quality*. I remember some parents who read that piece pushed back: why should we all be obliged to send our kids to a daycare that doesn’t fully align with our values? Isn’t staying at home with loving parents a much better option in terms of attachment and giving children a chance to be loved properly and not feel abandoned by their parents?

This is a very difficult issue that cannot be easily tackled by studies. The one thing we know is that the quality of childcare is crucial.

The nail in the coffin of academic training to little children

A study published earlier this year illustrated this point quite clearly. It was a long-term study of a state-wide early childhood programme in Tennessee. The Tennessee Pre-K Program aimed to provide free, “high-quality” preschool for children from families whose income was below the poverty line. The programme worked with teachers with at least a bachelor’s degree and put its focus on academic learning.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University followed these preschools and managed to create a controlled study because they also followed families from the same socio-economic background that did not manage to enrol their children in the public preschool programme.

The findings were quite stark. Although the children in the preschool programme performed better academically at the very beginning, by sixth grade they were more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disorder (14.6% of the children in the pre-K group vs. 8.4% in the control group), and they were 48% more likely to have committed a behavioural offence at school than those in the control group.

As Peter Gray, the renowned U.S. psychologist and scholar who focuses on the importance of play and nature, writes: “If this study doesn’t put the nail in the coffin of academic training to little children, it’s hard to imagine what will.”

The importance of play in early education

To go back to the idea of needing *quality* preschool for all children. My point is not that parents have a duty to send their children regardless, but that we need governments to think about the importance of our children’s growing brains from the first moment of life — and to understand what works and what doesn’t.

This brings to mind one of my favourite topics: play. I have written a lot about the importance of play in shaping our learning and understanding of the world. It is becoming more and more clear that play needs to be the basis of whatever form of early childhood education we create.

This also presents us parents with difficult decisions. If our public daycares (if there are any around us) do not offer a play-based curriculum, are we in the position to spend money to take our children elsewhere?

Throughout the years, I’ve been lucky enough to see some of these beautiful play-based centres in Thailand, Greece, Italy and beyond. Oftentimes, they are led by parents who decided to build something from scratch for their children. But shouldn’t we be pushing our authorities instead and making sure that these play-based spaces are available for everyone?

I definitely think so.

I would love to hear from you. What is your experience of daycares in your area? Have you faced difficult decisions when it came to leaving your child in daycare? Please hit reply.

What I’ve been listening to

This episode of On Being with Krista Tippett with U.S. children’s author Kate DiCamillo came highly recommended, but it was even better than what I expected. “Each and every adult is a former eight year old,” is how Tippett introduces her interview. If you know my writing, that is my premise to most of my work. I have never read DiCamillo’s work (I will now!), but what I loved about this podcast exchange is how the writer thinks of children’s independent thought and she asks: How do we tell the truth and make that truth bearable? DiCamillo says that her writing instinct comes from her eight-year-old self who was full of wonder and finds everything fascinating. Well worth a listen!

What I’ve been watching

Already at the age of two months, children start looking into other people’s eyes. By the age of ten months, they can start following what a person is looking at, if they have their eyes open. And when they start understanding what a person sees, they start understanding what a person wants. This fascinating journey into how we understand minds is laid out in a great animation by Jennifer Nagel, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, on how we “mindread” or try to figure out what other people think. Do babies innately understand other people’s beliefs? There is still a lot of controversy around the topic, but it’s worth digging into.

Who’s been inspiring me

English/Swedish photojournalist Anastasia Taylor-Lind has been following the lives of surrogate mothers in Ukraine during the war. There are an estimated 1,000 Ukrainian surrogate mothers who were pregnant when Vladimir Putin invaded the country on 24 February of this year. What I like about Taylor-Lind’s pictures she’s sharing on her Instagram is how close she got to these women and how she tries to portray how conflicted they are between keeping themselves and their surrogate babies safe.

With love and care,
Irene

📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle, who is working remotely from a gorgeous tiny island off the Irish coast but recommends visiting when there’s *not* a code yellow weather warning.

Photo credits and alt-text: Antonio Riccio for A Brave New Europe, two children drawing with colored pencil.

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