Monthly Archives: July 2011

Half a Billion Reasons to be Optimistic about Early Learning

The federal debate over the debt ceiling has captured the nation’s attention, and as the clock runs out, the stakes grow higher.  Children’s advocates in the US are understandably worried about impending cuts to certain federal programs that could significantly affect the availability of services for America’s middle and low income families.

However, amidst these challenging times, a new “challenge” has emerged that holds much promise for our nation’s youngest children —the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC). Recently announced by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, the new challenge builds on the K-12 Race to the Top initiative, inviting states to compete for $500 million in federal grant funding to “support bold and comprehensive state plans for raising the quality of early learning programs.”  Early Learning Challenge grants will range from $50 to $100 million, spread over four years. The official grant guidelines aren’t expected until late August (nearly 200 organizations submitted comments to the proposed guidelines).  Already nearly 40 Governors have said they plan to compete for the funding to support their states’ efforts to improve the quality of early childhood programs and close the kindergarten readiness gap for high-need children. While the infrastructures and investments of states’ early learning programs vary widely, the Early Learning Challenge grants offer all states the chance to move forward from where they are to build even stronger, smarter programs for children from birth to age five.

After decades of calling attention to the importance of early learning and advocating for resources for our youngest and most vulnerable children, the early childhood field is buzzing. Check out these three particularly good resources for more commentary and information: DOE, Washington Post, and the New America Foundation.

To support states as they prepare for the application process, a foundation-sponsored initiative has been launched that will provide technical assistance to states in planning their projects: The Early Learning Challenge Collaborative, organized by the First Five Years Fund and BUILD.

Another highly respected voice in early childhood policy, CLASP, has created an outstanding resource page for states related to the Early Learning Challenge.

Winners will be announced before the end of the year, so the next few months are sure to be busy for state governments involved in the competition. As a national research center with deep expertise in early childhood development and public programs serving young children, Child Trends is happy to share our latest research on issues relevant to the Early Learning Challenge application process, including:

A growing body of research and emerging best practices continue to point to the benefits, and return on investment, associated with high-quality early learning experiences. The architects of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge deserve kudos for acting on the science and steering investments to high quality early learning initiatives that can affect countless lives. The Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge is much more than a baby step forward for young children – it’s a down payment on the healthy development of our nation’s youngest children. They are tomorrow’s leaders and early learning investments today will help build a stronger work force for tomorrow.  These investments should be a priority as, not only do they mean much better outcomes for children, but, study after study has shown early childhood investments result in long-term savings for taxpayers (through reduced remedial education, health services and criminal justice costs.)

Regardless of which states ultimately secure grants, here’s hoping that the process over the next several months results in a wave of innovative planning across all states.  We’re up for the challenge.

-Hope Cooper
Vice President of Policy, Child Trends

PS.  Feel free to contact me, Hope Cooper (hcooper // at //, remove the slashes), with questions on early childhood issues or to discuss Child Trends’ research materials.

Coming soon: a series of blog entries highlighting innovative state approaches to early learning systems. We hope these spotlights will inspire ideas and aid states in their own planning for early childhood initiatives.


Filed under Children, Early Learning Challenge, Early Learning Challenge Collaborative, First Five Years Fund, Race to the Top, The BUILD Initiative

Early years important for building healthy nutrition and exercise habits

A recent issue of JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) includes a provocative commentary about childhood obesity.  Child Trends will let others debate the pros and cons of their suggestions. However, the ensuing attention once again shines light on a pressing public health issue – the growing problem of children who are obese and overweight.

As with many other life style habits, the early years play an important role in helping set the foundation for how a person approaches nutrition and physical activity.  Unfortunately the unhealthy routines that too many young children have when it comes to eating and exercise can jeopardize later school success and their long-term overall health.

Child Trends has just published a policy brief on early childhood nutrition and physical activity, that highlights some troubling statistics on young children and the habits they are developing.

On the nutrition front, the brief examines the overall eating patterns of children, the “food security” of households, and the context of children’s eating.  For example, the brief notes that the most recent Healthy Eating Index found that children from ages two to five scored an average of only 60 out of 100 points, based on their level of consumption of healthy foods.  In addition, 9.6 million children under age six live in “food insecure” households that consistently struggle with having enough food to eat.  Not surprisingly, food insecurity can lead to higher rates of hospitalization, iron-deficiency anemia, and other chronic health conditions.  Finally, the brief looks at the frequency of dining out among families with young children, the consumption of “convenience foods,” the context of snacking, and the frequency of watching television while eating.

An important factor affecting physical activity among young children is the prevalence of electronic media in their daily lives which our last blog post discussed.  “Screen time” is pervasive in the experience of young children, despite recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children younger than two should have no “screen time,” and that young children over two should have only one to two hours daily of exposure to “quality programming.”  A recent Oregon study of 2-year-olds found that nearly 20 percent spent more than two hours a day watching television, and that 18 percent had a television in their bedrooms.  Another study found that two-thirds of children under six years old live in households where the television is on “always” or “most of the time.”  Furthermore, one study found that children under six spent as much time using screen media as playing outside.  Not surprisingly, young children are significantly less likely to be obese when families limit screen time, regularly eat dinner together, and ensure that children get adequate sleep.

The brief concludes with state and local policy implications for nutrition assistance programs and access to healthier foods, among other suggestions.

While many – starting with First Lady Michelle Obama – are encouraging children to get moving and eat more nutritious food, those healthy habits are best established in the earliest years and may have life long consequences for overall development.

-David Murphey, Senior Research Scientist
Marci McCoy-Roth, Senior Director of Public Policy and Communication


Filed under Early Childhood, Exercise, Health, Nutrition, Obesity