The first 1,000 days of a child’s life (or more accurately, from conception to their third birthday) form a period of intense brain development, laying down the foundational architecture for lifelong learning. While the formal education system is geared towards learning from kindergarten age onwards, up to 85 percent of a child’s brain development has already occurred by the age of three. Too many Aotearoa New Zealand children are not laying down good pathways for learning by that age.
The more we learn about brain development in that first 1,000 days, the more we realise how important it is to ensuring all children can achieve their potential. That insight underpins NEXT Foundation’s decision to make the first 1,000 days one of its three education foci.
“There is a growing body of evidence showing that investment in early child development, starting during pregnancy, brings long-term human and economic returns,” says Marion Heppner, who leads NEXT’s first 1,000 days initiatives.
The single most important influence on a child’s development during this early period of life is the home environment – including parents and the wider whānau/family. “All parents want the best for their children, but being a parent is challenging,” says Marion. “We all need help sometimes. And some need more help than others, not because they’re ‘bad’ or lazy’, but because the odds are stacked against them.”
NEXT believes that by investing strategically to enable parents and families to nurture their children’s brain development,
it can make a difference. “If we want more Aotearoa New Zealand children to do well at school, it’s essential that we
enable parents and whānau to be their children’s first and best brain-builders,” says NEXT CEO Bill Kermode. “As a country we need to place a much higher value on the earliest years of life, and support for our babies. This isn’t just about avoiding future cost, it’s about seizing a really clear opportunity to make Aotearoa New Zealand healthier, happier and stronger.”
Helping families in the first years of baby’s life requires a broad strategy that goes beyond any one sector, and incorporates all the elements crucial to a child’s earliest developmental years, including housing, health, and immediate family and wider community support. That means effective solutions touch multiple sectors, multiple government departments, and multiple organisations – and that they are not simple interventions. To inform NEXT’s decision making about where to engage most powerfully, Marion carried out a mapping exercise of the “early years ecosystem”, identifying where NEXT investment could have the greatest impact.
NEXT’s first investments have been in rich early language (Talking Matters) and parent engagement, connectedness and confidence (Space through the Parenting Place). And we are interested in ways to reduce chronic stress so families have the “bandwidth” to nurture their children’s development. NEXT’s strategy focuses on giving an initiative financial confidence over a two to five year period; bringing a system perspective and providing access to expertise and advice (governance, communications, measurement, legal and technical); and helping build the interconnectedness between agencies that is vital to meeting the multi-faceted challenges of improving first 1,000 days experiences.
NEXT’s approach is flexible and aimed at harnessing the energy, commitment and expertise that already exists
within many communities. “We will support more than one organisation in any area in which we engage,” says Marion. “These may not all be system-changing in their own right, but they will each make a strategic contribution to system change in some way.”
“As a country we need to place a much higher value on the earliest years of life, and support for our babies. This isn’t just about avoiding future cost, it’s about seizing a really clear opportunity to make Aotearoa New Zealand healthier, happier and stronger.”
NEXT CEO Bill Kermode
Photo credit: Daniel Lee.