UNICEF warns Sri Lankan children at risk when entering adulthood

Children in Sri Lanka are at risk of entering adulthood at a disadvantage to their peers, because they have not benefited from the good nutrition, stimulation and protection – known as ‘eat, play and love’ – that enable a brain to grow to its full capacity by the age of 5 years, the UN Children’s agency UNICEF warned today.

Advances in neuroscience have proved that during the early years of life a child’s brain grows at an astounding rate which is never again repeated. During this time, neural connections occur at lightning speed, forming the architecture of a child’s brains and determining their health, ability to learn and deal with stress, and even influencing their earning capacity as adults. Incredibly, a child’s brain grows and develops to 85 per cent of its full capacity by the age of 5.

In these early years’ brain development depends on three things: good nutrition, play and stimulation in the home environment and in preschools (aged 3-5 years), and love and protection from harm including violence, abuse and neglect.

These can be provided by parents through simple actions, and can make a lasting, positive difference to a child’s development. Yet at present too many children in Sri Lanka are at risk of missing out on some or all of these key interventions:

An estimate 17% of children under five are at risk of poor development due to stunted growth, resulting from poor nutrition.

15.1% of children under five are suffering from ‘wasting’, which if untreated can lead to chronic malnutrition.

73.4% of children aged one to fourteen experience corporal punishment at home by parents, including children under the age of five.

Only 48.7% of three to five-year old’s attend pre-school, which when of good quality helps to foster cognitive and language development, social competency and emotional development.

Marking the run up to Father’s Day (17th June) – an internationally recognized moment to celebrate good parenting – UNICEF has launched a new digital campaign to celebrate and inform parents how they can support their children’s optimal brain development.

Directed by Ilango Ram and featuring musician Jananath Warakagoda, former Sri Lankan national rugby captain Fazil Marija, and broadcaster K C Pragash, each with their own children, the campaign consists of three two-minute ‘masterclasses’ that, in a humorous way give key information to parents on how through simple actions, they can help to build their children’s brains.

Each ‘masterclass’ is based on a key insight, including the fact that up to 75% of the energy derived from food goes toward brain development in under-fives, and that five minutes of play can spark 300,000 brain connections in young children.

“The science is clear – the first five years of life are absolutely critical to a child’s whole future” said Tim Sutton, Representative, UNICEF Sri Lanka, adding “This means that if we don’t enable every child to reach their full brain capacity by age five, we are robbing them, and Sri Lanka of its most valuable resource – the brains of its next generation. At present, too many children are at risk of entering adulthood at a disadvantage. Thankfully, parents can make all the difference. Through ‘eat, play and love’ they have the power transform their child’s future.”

Stimulation, in the form of quality preschool learning opportunities between the ages of three and five is also vital to development. A quality preschool is a place where trained teachers help children learn through play, fostering cognitive and language development and social and emotional competencies, yet many, often the poorest, do not attend.

To ensure that every child under 5, irrespective of their wealth or location can benefit from at least one year of quality pre-school, giving them the best possible chance to succeed in school and life, UNICEF has launched an online petition at www.unicef.lk/eatplaylove, open to all that will be presented to decision makers in the future. We urge all to sign.

The Master Classes were produced with the support of Publicis Sri Lanka, part of the Leo Burnett Group. (Colombo Gazette)