Championing Early Childhood Development 

About 60 per cent of Nigerian children under the age of five are at risk of not reaching their full potential because of poor early childhood learning and malnutrition. But UNICEF says if the country must meet the SDGs, priority should be given to early childhood development. Martins Ifijeh writes 
A popular meme on social media sometime ago showed a young poor, deprived, lonely and malnourish-looking boy selling roses to another young but healthy-looking child whose parents held on to on both hands in a show of love and care.
The child who bought roses was all smiles as he walked away with it in his hands, but the one who sold out the roses had pain written all over his face. He wished he was the one on the other side.
While this poor looking boy sells roses, which obviously brings happiness to children of parents who could afford them, he himself could not own one despite selling them. He was distributing happiness he couldn’t have for himself.
This was the case of Salima Isa, a 12 years old girl who sells happiness to pupils of Kofar Nassarawa Model Primary School in Kano, yet she does not have that happiness for herself.
While the children were at school on a Wednesday morning learning, Salima was sitting at the school gate waiting to get permission by break time to enter the compound so she could sell groundnut to other children.
By 9:15a.m., Salima, who came from a village 45 kilometres away from the school, struggled her way into the compound as it was time for short break.
Soon, over 30 children surrounded her with their faces beaming with happiness and laughter as they brought out different denominations of money, including five naira and 10 naira, to buy groundnut.
The way Salima was surrounded, one would think if the pupils do not buy her groundnut they may not be able to concentrate in class after break. Those who were successful at buying were all smiles as they went to different corners of the expanded school compound to enjoy the special peanut, while others continued to struggle to have theirs.
While it was obvious Salima was putting smiles on the faces of the children, she wished she could have such happiness as well. She wished she would one day come out during break time to buy groundnut for herself rather than being the one selling the delicacy at her own detriment.
But a lot of factors have stopped her from actualising those wishes. She is deprived and lonely. All she has in her is spread the kind of happiness she could not taste from.
Salima, who eventually spoke to THISDAY said since five years of age, she has been going to different schools, not for studies, but to sell groundnut, kunu or donkwa as her parents do not believe in girl-child education. They believed it would be a waste of money to train a girl-child who would end up leaving the house to marry from another family, and eventually drop the name of her father.
A missed early childhood development window of opportunity
Salima, who could pass for a six-year-old despite being 12, is not only deprived from being exposed to a structured learning environment, she has somewhat missed a vital part of her life, Early Childhood Development (ECD), as she looked stunted, too small for her age, and obviously disadvantaged in terms of early childhood learning, a vital pre-requisite for proper childhood development.
“I have never been enrolled in school before. I do not know what they do in those buildings,” pointing to one of the classes. “The only school I know is the school of Quran in front of my house,” said Salima, as she spoke in Hausa language to our correspondent with her face bent to the ground.
A teacher in the school assisted in translating in English language to her, while he translates her language to our correspondent in English.
“Even if she is assisted by anyone now to get enrollment in our school here or any other school around, there is a high possibility she may not be able to cope or learn as fast as she would if she had been exposed to learning from the very beginning,” said the teacher, Mr. Bala Nasiru.
Pointing to the pre-primary school classes where children below five years were learning, Nasiru said, “you see those little children over there, they are learning very fast every day. By the time they get to primary school, it will be easier for them to grasp what ever they learn,” he said.
Salima, who has never undergone early childhood learning whether before her fifth birthday or at her present age, is not alone. About 2.5 million children in Nigeria are malnourished and would not even have the mental capacity needed for developmental potential required to successfully go through life in future.
No wonder a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) specialist, Swadchet Sanky in a media parley organised by the UN body in Kano recently, said over 60 per cent of under five Nigerian children stand the risk of not developing appropriately due to poor early childhood development, including early learning, environmental interaction, nutrition, exclusive breastfeeding, among others, adding that not less than 250 million under five children globally are unlikely to reach their full potential because their development have been hampered.
She said that Nigeria is among the top 10 countries contributing to these huge numbers of children, adding that the country may not be able to meet the Sustainable Development Goal four if under five children were deprived of the necessary tools needed for early childhood development.
Sankey, described the period as critical and single window opportunity to shape the development of a child’s brain, adding that at every stage, the child is expected to acquire certain developmental skills.
“With 90 per cent of a child’s brain development occurring before the age of five, early childhood experiences can have a profound impact on development and ultimately on a country’s growth.
“The brain is formed at an unrepeated speed, giving shape and depth to children’s cognitive, emotional and social development which influences their capacity to learn, solve problems and to relate with others. This contributes to adult life and ability to earn a living and contribute to the society.”
She described early childhood as a critical opportunity to shape a child’s development, emphasising that “nurturing children, effective stimulation among others would help them learn, laugh, feel joy and become more creative and imaginative.
“These relatively simple actions have a ripple impact on the child’s long-term development, education and future successes. Any environment that is not sensitive to nutrition, health and security of children is not a complete environment for ECD.
“Nigeria does not have the fundamentals in place for a comprehensive approach to ECD, with an integrated multi-sectoral ECD policy, the key indicators of child development outcomes in the country remain low. “The current policy is out-dated, and needs to be reviewed to contain current thinking and an improved approach to delivering ECD across various platforms,” she explained.
Nutrition is linked to children’s academic performance in future
Studies have shown that a child’s early years begin before birth when it comes to nutrition, as under-nutrition during pregnancy stunts foetal growth and can lead to poor brain development that results in irreversible chronic illnesses.
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), UNICEF and other key partners, recently officially released the results of the 5th Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey (MICS5), conducted between September 2016 and January 2017, from 33,901 households in 2,239 enumeration areas across the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The results indicated that malnutrition among children under age five has worsened nationwide, with the highest concerns in Northern Nigeria.
Child wasting, that is children who are too thin for their age, increased from 24.2 per cent to 31.5 per cent, while child stunting; that is children who are too short for their age, increased from 34.8 per cent to 43.6 per cent.
According to a Nutrition Specialist with UNICEF, Dr. Bamidele Omotola, the relationship between nutrition, health and learning is undeniably strong, as nutrition is one of the three major factors that impact a child’s development.
“In gestation and infancy, the brain is an ‘energy hog’, consuming between 50 and 75 per cent of all the energy absorbed by the body from food, including fats, proteins,
vitamins and minerals. Inadequate nutrition during that period affects the structure and functions of the brain in ways that are difficult to offset later
“Supporting exclusive breastfeeding, having good Early Childhood Development policies in place will help to improve the overall health and nutrition of a child, enable parents and care-givers be more responsive to children’s needs and provide greater safety and security. It will also provide improved early learning.”
Meeting SDG through ECD
ECD, according to UNICEF is key to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.
UNICEF Representative in Nigeria, Mohamed Fall, believes a child’s physical and cognitive support, has a strategic place in the achievement of SDG. “Investing in ECD, including services to support caregivers, quality pre-primary education and good nutrition will help to secure healthy and productive future generations in Nigeria,” he said.
Sankey said, “SDGs present an opportunity to connect ECD with efforts to create equity, productivity, prosperity and sustainable growth for a more peaceful future.
“Embedded in the SDGs is hunger, health, education and justice targeting malnutrition, child mortality, early learning and violence.” The specialist, who identified SDGs 3 and 4 which deals with good health and education as targeting ECD, said through quality ECD, all children, irrespective of background, would have access to quality care, education, nutrition, protection among others.
Sankey further noted that ECD would aid in driving transformation agenda, describing it as a cost-effective strategy for poverty eradication. “If we do not increase investment on ECD in early years, we will have issues in achieving SDGs, because all the 17 goals are tied to it, because the child is at the centre of it all.
“You want to eradicate poverty, gender inequality, you need to invest in the children; you want to improve the economy among others; you need to invest in children,” she advised.