By María Julia Acosta

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It’s Sunday at noon. Analía and Javier sit down to a family lunch where Mateo, their 15-month-old son, is the main attraction in the eyes of his aunts, uncles and grandparents. But this low-key lunch quickly turns into a lively debate. Are you really thinking of sending Mateo to nursery school when he’s still so little? Don’t you think the best education happens at home? What valuable knowledge could he possibly pick up at a nursery school when he’s barely 15 months old?

In Uruguay, as well as other countries in the region, little is known about the population’s beliefs about child development.  In other words, there is little in the way of systematized information on how parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins and the public in general perceive children and the potential of early childhood within the life cycle. Having this information is essential because all of these people, in their different roles, develop views and actions regarding child rearing, but they’re not always based on evidence.

Motivated by this research question, at the division of Social Development and the Methodology Laboratory at Equipos MORI, an organization dedicated to applied social research in Uruguay and the region, we set out to learn what is Uruguayans’ vision of early childhood and the care and attention that children receive at this stage.

Let’s look at the study results [link in Spanish]. For 86% of Uruguayans living in locales with over 10,000 inhabitants, early childhood is the most critical stage for development throughout the lifespan. That group also believes that there are differences in favor of children who attend early childhood education centers in terms of the acquisition of language and other social skills. For example, they relate better to other children their age, and they also learn to talk more quickly.  

However, when asked about responsibility for child care, no consensus emerges. Fifty percent of respondents stated that child care is the exclusive domain of parents and family. The reality is that child care is not the sole responsibility of the parents and family, since children are recognized as subjects of rights and governments must ensure that these rights are respected. According to the research evidence, the family setting is not the only place to stimulate development, as other spaces play a fundamental role in providing specialized stimulation.

We were also struck that 20% of respondents believe that it makes no sense to send a child under age 3 to a preschool program because at that age they don’t learn anything. They don’t learn anything? The results of neuroscience research say something different, and so does the experience we may have as parents, aunts and uncles, or siblings.

Another 25% of the population believes that early childhood education centers are places that are only good for caring for children while their parents are at work. These beliefs should give us pause, as they might be associated with the public’s perceptions of the quality of these services. It’s worth noting that this viewpoint is more common among individuals with a lower level of education.

In Uruguay, 36% of children under age 3 attend preschool, and this percentage is significantly higher among children of mothers with post-secondary education. This situation may create a gap between children at the outset. If access to quality early childhood education is disproportionately concentrated among those with the highest socioeconomic status, then social inequality may worsen for some children at a very early age.

The latest headlines [link in Spanish] in Uruguayan newspapers make mention of measures aimed at universal early childhood care, particularly at CAIF preschools, in order to increase the birth rate.  Given the data shown in this post, this could also reduce the gaps at the outset for extremely vulnerable populations that do not have the financial ability to pay for a high-quality private service.

Analía and Javier are still thinking about whether to send Mateo to nursery school.  What would you advise them to do?

María Julia Acosta is the Director of Social Development at Equipos MORI in Uruguay.

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