Children of the 21st century: the first five years

Last Wednesday (17 February 2010), The Policy Press published arguably the most important book to date on the UK Millennium Cohort Study which resulted in widespread media coverage and discussion of the findings, including the Guardian, Telegraph, Times, BBC News and the Observer. The book takes up the story of 19,000 children recruited into the study at the beginning of the new century and follows their progress from birth to primary school. The origins and objectives of the study, along with the results of its first survey were covered in a companion volume: Children of the Twenty-first Century: from birth to nine months (Dex and Joshi, 2005).

The stage of the life course which this book – Children of the 21st century: the first five years – covers is one of great advances in child development – the most rapid since the nine months before their birth. As they grow from babies into children they have been weaned, learned to walk, talk and play. Height at age five is around double their length at birth. They grow out of nappies. Their bodies strengthen and their faces change. Differences between boys and girls are reinforced by gendered clothing and often gendered toys.

Identity and personality emerge, along with relationships with other family members. They have been prepared for later years by immunizations against childhood infections. They acquire their first set of teeth and learn to brush them. They also learn to sing, draw, paint, to listen to stories, to count and to recognize symbols. Not all to start reading and writing by age 5. By the end of the window observed here they are sufficiently independent of the parental nest to attend school, and learn from other adults and interact with other children. They have acquired knowledge and skills through learning at home, and pre-school provisions, which will also stand them in good stead in later life. It is also thought that negative experiences and hardships at these early ages will prove an impediment to the child’s later development.

To mark the publication, the Centre for Longitudinal Studies issued six press releases on the book’s key findings. These releases reported that:

  • * Parents who read to their child every day at age 3 are likely to see them flourishing in a wide range of subjects during their first year in primary school.
  • * Fewer parents are managing to enrol children in their true ‘first choice’ primary schools than is generally thought.
  • * Screening tests that monitor babies’ motor development could prove crucial in helping to identify children who will need learning support in their pre-school years.
  • * Black children in the UK are far more likely to be overweight than youngsters from other ethnic groups when they enter primary school.
  • * Black Caribbean and black African mothers are more likely than women from other ethnic groups to say that they have been victims of racism.
  • * Sikh and Roman Catholic mothers attend religious services more regularly than women from other major faiths and churches.

Dr Kirstine Hansen
Research Director, Millennium Cohort Study, Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education

We would love to hear your opinion of the findings of the study: please comment on this blog or email us with your thoughts.

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