Parents do not recognise the importance of learning in pre-school years, claims charity Save the Children

Too many parents are underestimating their children’s ability to learn language, according to a report.

A survey of parents by charity Save the Children found that far from the popular idea of “helicopter” or “tiger” parents hot-housing children long before they go to school, hundreds of thousands of adults hold potentially harmfully low expectations for their child’s early learning.

According to the research, 47 percent of parents with children aged between 2 and 10 years estimated that children would know 100 words by their third birthday – just half the number recommended by the Government.

The report highlights Government figures estimating that one in five children were behind in language development at the age of five last year. That equates to every five-year-old in London, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle combined, the charity said.

Separate figures show that around one in five children – or one in three of those from the poorest families – cannot read well by the time that they finish primary school.

The charity is launching a new campaign, backed by a group of leading child psychologists and education specialists, calling for every nursery to have a qualified early years teacher, funded by the taxpayer, to ensure youngsters have properly structured “brain time” during play.

They point out that toddlers’ brains are twice as active as adults and that they can form connections at twice the rate of grown-ups. In a joint statement, they argue that Government action is necessary, otherwise these children could be struggling for a decade.

“A child’s pre-school years form a critical opportunity for the brain to develop key skills like speech and language,” says their paper. “Our research shows failure to develop adequate language skills leaves children struggling to learn in the classroom.”

Professor Torsten Baldeweg, professor of Neuroscience and Child Health at UCL, said: “Why is it important to stimulate children before they go to school? It is precisely this period when we have explosive brain growth, where most of the connections in the brain are formed.”

“We know that if these connections are not formed they, to variable degrees, will suffer longer term consequences to their physical, cognitive but also emotional development…. Much more must be done to boost children’s early development.”

Save the Children, howeverm claim that many parents do not recognise the importance of learning in the early years. Its polling showed that 61 per cent of parents – and 68 per cent of fathers – felt that school was the most important period in a child’s learning. In addition, 56 per cent of parents – and 65 per cent of fathers – felt they had not been given enough help and advice to understand the importance of their child’s early learning.

A combination of talking, word games and singing can help play-time become brain-time, Save the Children added. Without enough support from home or in the nursery, children can fall behind.

Gareth Jenkins, director of UK Poverty for save the Children, said: “Toddlers’ brains are like sponges, absorbing knowledge and making new connections faster than any other time in life.

“We’ve got to challenge the misconception that learning can wait for school as, if a child starts their first day at school behind, they tend to stay behind.”

Read more: Lighting Up Young Brains