In her exclusive blog for the iVillage blog series CelebVillage, The Odd Life of Timothy Green star and mom (to daughters Violet, 6, and Seraphina, 3, and 6-month-old son Samuel with husband Ben Affleck) Jennifer Garner writes about why she’s so passionate about her work as an artist ambassador with the children’s nonprofit organization Save the Children and how early childhood education can make a huge impact in enhancing kids’ lives.
“Early childhood education” has become a sort of catchphrase for politicians and children’s advocates like me. As an artist ambassador for Save the Children, I’ve had the privilege of seeing Save’s programs firsthand and meeting with the parents and children that they support. I’ve sat in young mothers’ homes. I’ve seen how much these mothers love their children, how their dreams and aspirations for their children are no different than yours and mine are for our own kids. But the truth is, it’s sort of tricky to figure out what exactly “early childhood education” means, what it entails, and how exactly it is relevant to your possibilities as an adult.
So what is it that happens before the age of 5 that is so critical? What magical things are middle-class women giving their kids that children in poverty aren’t getting? How do you know if your kids are getting what they need? And why are an overwhelming number of poor children getting left behind?
On the one hand, it is circumstance. The mothers I have visited in rural America live in cinder-block homes, or trailers without windows or space to put a playpen or lay their children on the floor and play with them. These families live in government-sponsored housing without a book or a picture or a crayon in sight. These parents are so isolated — not always part of a loving community with friends to compare notes and vent to or watch and learn from, but all alone and far from family and often a little bit ashamed and embarrassed by their situations. When you have a little baby, or two or three, you need encouragement and support. These women are raising a baby in a vacuum. The families that Save the Children serves lack the physical tools of early education.
On the other hand, it is knowledge and support. It is crazy to go into a home with an 11 month old who doesn’t make a sound. No gurgles or coos. No screeches. Kids living in poverty, on average, have heard 30 million fewer words spoken to them by the time they are four years old. How is that? By not valuing children’s earliest years, our government sends a message to parents that children’s education doesn’t begin until kindergarten.
But this is not true — babies start learning the day they are born. As a matter of fact, 90 percent of brain growth occurs before the age of 5. Babies learn to speak and learn to trust people from eye-to-eye contact. Kids need to hear us narrate what we can see at the grocery store, what clothes they might wear, how sad we are that the Olympics are over. You need to be spoken to in order to learn to speak, you need to be read to in order to learn to read, you need to hear songs sung to you and Mother Goose rhymes, you need to play to learn how to learn. You don’t need to know the alphabet by 3 years old to be successful — but it helps to know that there is an alphabet. You don’t need to know any songs or rhymes but your brain needs to have heard them to accrue vocabulary.
More than 60 percent of poor families don’t have books in their homes. It isn’t that kids should be reading by kindergarten, but they should know what a book is — how to hold it, turn the pages, and how to sit still in anticipation of hearing a story.
And that’s why Save the Children’s Early Steps to School Success programs are so effective. Through home visits, book exchanges, parenting groups and more, Early Steps helps babies and toddlers with language, social and emotional development. Just as important, the program helps their parents, giving them the knowledge and skills to support their children’s growth. And the program works: Kids in Early Steps don’t have to play catch up once they start school — they are in line with the national average from the beginning. More important, the parents we work with feel recognized, encouraged and part of a community of people who care about the future of their children.
Jennifer Garner stars in the new film The Odd Life of Timothy Green and is an artist ambassador for Save the Children. Find out more about the organization’s Early Steps to School Success program. And click here to read more exclusive posts in the CelebVillage series.