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Set up for life: How can early intervention support the development of vital cognitive skills?


19 Dec 2018

Paul Ramchandani, Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning at Cambridge University, reflects on EIF's 'Key competencies' report, and how to turn the evidence about children's cognitive development into actions for parents, providers and policy-makers.

An important new report is released by EIF this week. Key competencies in early cognitive development: Things, people, numbers and words explores four crucial aspects of early child development, including children’s naming of objects, people, numbers and language. These are all important skills that children develop in the early years, and which support their learning more generally. Most of these are straightforward to understand – though when the report talks about naming people, it is really focused on children’s understanding of other people and how they think (related to what is sometimes called theory of mind).

It is excellent to see EIF focus on a range of key developmental outcomes in this way. A lot of work tends to concentrate on just one domain of functioning, and this misses the fact that most aspects of child development are linked. The report highlights the extent to which some of these key skills develop together and support each other. This means that interventions which only focus on one aspect of development can sometimes (not always, just sometimes) be to the detriment of others.

The report also highlights the fact that there are often overlapping risk and protective factors that work to support or undermine a child’s development in these critical areas. Low family income is one key example. Issues related to family income and family resources run throughout the report, and although the solutions to these problems do need to be sophisticated and multifaceted, it is clear that reducing inequalities should be a key target if we are serious about optimising outcomes for all children.

There is a lot in Key competencies that should be useful to those in early years services, and could also be of use to parents. In particular, my attention was drawn to two key points and one key challenge.

The first key point is that the report draws attention to a range of potential interventions that can help children to achieve the best outcomes – these include a focus on having a nurturing home learning environment. The report rightly notes that a nurturing home learning environment has a range of components, including parent–child interactions and enriching learning materials, but also including ‘enriching learning experiences outside of the home, which may include high-quality childcare and early years education’.

The second key point is that a lot of the ideas for things that could be done focus on parents talking with their children more, sharing books and simply discussing day-to-day goings-on, even from a young age. The context for a lot of these early conversations and sharing of games and books can be through play. Types of play and the importance of parents and children playing together in the early years are mentioned throughout the report. Giving parents and early childcare workers the skills and ideas to make these early interactions playful and enjoyable makes it more likely that parents and children will want to return to these activities.

The key challenge, then, lies in implementation – how to turn these helpful and important messages about child development into actions that can be taken by parents, service providers and policy-makers. Through this report, EIF has provided useful evidence about the process of child development, and I look forward to actions being developed – particularly actions that can benefit children born into the most challenging settings. That is something that all of us working with children, families and childcare systems can really get involved in.

About the author

Prof Paul Ramchandani

Paul Ramchandani is LEGO Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning at Cambridge University and a trustee at EIF.