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At last year’s World Forum on Early Care in Education in Macau, China, we showed the audience a photograph of “PARO,” a soft and cuddly baby seal that is actually a therapeutic robot used in more than 30 countries as emotional support therapy for adults with dementia and children with autism.

The cuddly critter makes baby seal sounds when tickled under the chin, and using artificial intelligence it “learns” how its owner most likes to be responded to. PARO has been clinically proven to lower anxiety, stress, pain and depression.

We suppose all of us could use our own emotional support seal at times, even if it is a robot.

While new technology can serve important purposes, we all know that caregiving is a deeply personal, human task that should never be entirely automated. Children, of course, thrive in reciprocal, responsive relationships with loving and devoted caregivers.

We live in a time of unprecedented and rapid technological transformations in culture and society. All of these transformations are impacting young children and families one way or another.

Key to children’s development, however, are the skills children learn best through play.

In his book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” Yuval Noah Harari argues that we should not teach children predetermined skills such as coding. In just a couple of decades, software may be able to code far better than humans, he writes. Instead, perhaps we should focus more on encouraging the act of play, even while making use of new technology, so that children understand those concepts.

Without the freedom to play, a child’s future is at risk. Play builds children’s knowledge and skills to help them discover the gifts they later can put to use. Play is to children what meaningful work is to adults. Work allows many of us to exercise creativity, ingenuity and strength in service to our own ideals, families, communities and the broader world. Without dignified work—even (and importantly) if our work is voluntary caregiving of children or elders—humans cannot flourish.

In this age of disruptive change that impacts children and families so tremendously, we must reframe how the world views both work and play— so that more children have every opportunity to flourish.

Work, Play and Equity

In his rather hilariously titled (and at times chilling) book “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory,” anthropologist David Graeber argues that too many people today have rather meaningless jobs, no matter their skill level or salary. He defines a meaningless job as “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.” They push paper and data, supervise supervisors, and create reports or spreadsheets that no one notices. Graeber cites a 2015 poll of workers in Britain that showed half of workers reporting that their jobs either did not make a meaningful contribution to the world or that they were not sure.

Some economists had predicted that by now technology would allow most humans to work only part-time and spend more of their lives raising children, creating art and solving problems. Instead, as technology evolves at blinding speed, inequity in the world only seems to be increasing.

Young children often feel the brunt of inequity more intensely than anyone.

They collide with systems that are structurally discriminatory based on historical segregation (such as South Africa’s apartheid legacy), race, gender, class and perceived ability. Often the systems intended to help children can perpetuate marginalization and inequity.

Taking Care

Preschool teachers are to the children in their care as civil engineers are to the structures they design. They both have the weighty responsibility and unique opportunity to craft a foundation sturdy enough to support everything that comes after. However, unlike engineers, early childhood professionals have limited access to quality training, and opportunities for ongoing professional development and mentorship are rare, particularly for teachers in impoverished communities. 

Low barriers to entry into the profession may be a good thing for job creation, but they have potential negative consequences for both teachers and children. Two such consequences for teachers are the underrated public opinion of the profession and the low levels of remuneration.

According to a study by the University of California, Berkeley, more than 80 percent of center-based educators in the U.S. who care for and teach infants and toddlers earn less than $15 per hour, relatively meager wages in comparison to teachers of older children and fields such as nursing and fire and rescue personnel.

In South Africa, most preschool teachers, regardless of qualification, earned less than R2500 ($173) per month in 2014.

Indeed, paying for child care continues to be problematic for most families in both the U.S. and South Africa. Despite staggeringly record-low unemployment rates in the U.S., for example, the purchasing power of wages has been stagnant for most working people for the past 40 years.

Without meaningful work, people can fall into despair and loneliness. This seems even more likely with the emergence of artificial intelligence, automation and algorithmic surveillance. As we embrace these amazing technological advances, we must approach them critically and ensure they serve families (rather than the other way around). Too often, we do not recognize how the profound social, economic and technological changes underway will reshape their lives. 

Rather than more disruption, what if innovation could create more stability for young children and those who care for them? Innovation Edge’s Early Childhood Development Heroes Challenge, for example, shows the role of innovation in developing caregivers through a digital competition using video game-like features that provide professional development.

What if children were treated as full members of society instead of as adults in training? What if flourishing was seen as a common good and every issue was a children’s issue?

When we talk about the future, we mean children. Research across disciplines shows that while everyone needs these opportunities throughout their lives, having them in the first eight years of life is particularly essential. Even so, society has not yet delivered on its fundamental promises of equity, abundant opportunity and universal dignity for every young child and all families.

The Need to Nourish

In the U.S., black and Hispanic children continue to be less likely than white or Asian children to enjoy very good or excellent health and are more likely to have experienced an adverse childhood event. Depression and general anxiety disorders among children have increased dramatically over the past half-century.

According to the new South African Early Childhood Review 2019 data report, many of the world’s children do not have proper food and nutrition—even in countries such as ours.

“Children who receive adequate nutrition in the first 1000 days of life, and throughout childhood, are more likely to have better health and educational outcomes in childhood and higher productivity in adulthood,” the report says, noting that the U.N. estimates the costs of malnutrition in the billions of dollars for governments and households.

South Africa has high levels of child malnutrition, despite its relatively high per-capita income compared with other countries in the region, the report says, because of the country’s devastating inequality and high poverty.

At the same time, more young children in South Africa are overweight and obese (similarly to the U.S.). About 13 percent of South Africa’s children under five years are overweight, mainly from lack of exercise (play) and increased consumption of processed foods high in salt, sugar and fats, the report says.

Nearly one-third of South Africa’s children under two years old have stunted growth, a direct result of malnutrition, the report found. Incredibly, one-third of South Africa’s women ages 15 to 49 suffer from anemia, while 13 percent of women in the same age group are vitamin A deficient, the report found—yet 62 percent of women in this age group are overweight or obese.

We simply cannot continue along this path in our approaches to food and the environment.

Solutions require a multi-sector approach that includes early childhood care and education, as well as many societal and cultural changes.

Sustainable home visiting programs by health care aides and nurses are a first step, but happen only in sections of South Africa and the U.S.

Cooperative Work and Care?

Foundations for Flourishing Futures, a report and forecast by the U.S. nonprofit groups KnowledgeWorks and Capita, imagines the types of future innovations that could change children’s and families’ lives—and perhaps improve them as new work realities change how families use and access child care.

One idea Capita has outlined is the idea of cooperatives for child care and other needs. This means more cooperation, quite literally. The report describes cooperatives as “people-centered enterprises owned, controlled and run by and for their members to realize their common needs and aspirations.”

In Spain, the Mondragon Corporation is a business that competes in international markets using cooperative methods in its “company organization, job creation, both the human and professional development of its workers, and a commitment to the development of its social environment.” The company even founded its own university to provide courses for employees and their children throughout life.

The Flourishing Futures forecast suggests that in the years to come, innovations such as community or regional co-ops could use crowdfunding and innovative staffing for the care of young children and even for older adults. There is no reason why we cannot build more early childhood cooperatives—or at least entities that resemble this concept—to help lay the foundation for a more dignified future of work for providers, and the parents and children they serve.

Looking Ahead

Long-term perspectives are urgently needed by those working on behalf of children. We must move beyond our current silos in the early childhood field and be proactive champions of the innovations, systems and policies that will support children who will not be born for decades.

The Iroquois people of North America traditionally believe in raising children who are mindful of those who will live seven generations from today. In our work, we focus on investing in the ideas and systems that will improve children’s lives. By investing more resources in our youngest children and those who care for them—not just money, but energy and innovation that transcend sector—we can build a better future.

Our hope is that all of us—in child care, philanthropy, business, government and community organizations—can cooperate in new ways to create the future we want for generations to come.

Originally published in Exchange Magazine, the Early Childhood Leaders’ Magazine Since 1978.

About the Authors

Nicole Biondi leads communications for Innovation Edge, an innovation catalyst and social-impact investor focused on children and families. Joe Waters is the co-founder and CEO of Capita, an ideas lab working to ensure that all young children and their families flourish.