By Scott Cummings
February is Early Childhood Education Awareness Month, an ideal time to reflect on what’s best for our children and how to kick-start healthy development from a young age. The early child period − between birth to five years old − is the most important developmental phase, as it impacts long-term social, cognitive, emotional and physical development in children.
Early childhood development is the foundation for health, academic readiness and economic productivity. That’s why it’s crucial to support quality education programs that promote healthy brain development across all socioeconomic backgrounds.
Children, especially those who live in vulnerable communities, can experience great benefits from participating in early childhood education initiatives since they help minimize gaps that often exist in school readiness. However, approximately, 21 percent of families in the U.S. have incomes below 100 percent Federal Poverty Level and less than half of the children in low-income families were enrolled in center-based early childhood education programs.
These at-risk children need stable, responsive care in a safe environment. Community centers and nonprofit organizations play a large role in making these efforts a reality. For the best results, it’s crucial to offer easy-to-access early childhood education programs that also promote good nutrition and healthy lifestyles in order to better serve the whole child.
Care1st Health Plan Arizona Offers Community Resources
Care1st Health Plan Arizona offers the Care1st Avondale Resource Center, a one-stop hub of social and human services that supports early childhood education in underserved southwest Maricopa County. The center partners with a variety of nonprofit organizations that offer early childhood education initiatives, as well as First Things First, a voter-initiated, statewide organization that provides needed funding.
“Raising a Reader” is one program available to children, parents or caregivers to promote literacy by building communication skills and vocabulary. Participating parents and caregivers are encouraged to engage their children in fun and interactive ways, such as reading and singing.
The center also offers developmental and sensory screenings related to developmental milestones, vision and hearing to help parents track their child’s development. If any needs are identified, referrals are made to additional support programs or pediatricians to help coordinate next steps.
Programs Can Help Prevent Chronic Diseases
A recent study showed that early childhood programs that included curriculum on both health and nutrition can help prevent chronic diseases. Consequently, adults, who had participated in these programs as children, had significantly better health in their mid-30s and a lower prevalence of risk factors for conditions such as stroke and diabetes.
The Care1st Avondale Resource Center provides nutrition programs like “Women, Infants and Children,” also known as WIC, a federal USDA program that connects at-risk expectant and new mothers with young children with food, nutrition education, breastfeeding support, referrals and resources. Research indicates that children who participate in WIC have a higher intake of nutrients and better medical care.
Additionally, the “Southwest Nutrition and Physical Activity Program” is available at the center for children, parents and caregivers to learn more about healthy eating, recipes, serving sizes and how to engage in healthy physical activities such as dancing, relays and parachute games.
Care1st Health Plan Arizona is committed to providing quality, holistic care to our members and the communities we serve, particularly to help vulnerable populations connect with the resources their children will need to succeed in school and later in life.
Scott Cummings is the state president of Care1st Health Plan Arizona.