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The Futures of Young Children and Their Families: Early Insights

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Topics: Early Childhood, Emerging Trends, Future of Learning

The earliest years of life are in many ways a deeply private time for both young children and their families. Together these individuals are navigating their own routines, care and support systems, and a society that is often not oriented to their needs. At the same time, young children’s developmental, relational and educational experiences stay relevant long beyond their childhoods and carry significant implications for society. How should we balance the personal and collective aspects of that period of life? How might our cultural understanding and norms shift to alter that balance in the future?

Young children’s developmental, relational and educational experiences stay relevant long beyond their childhoods and carry significant implications for society.

Since 2006, we’ve been publishing forecasts on the future of learning. During that time, we have expanded from an initial focus on K-12 education to including higher education and exploring future workforce needs. While that includes most of the learning continuum, it misses a focus on early learners.

In partnership with Capita, a startup ideas lab exploring how the great cultural and social transformations of our day affect young children, KnowledgeWorks is thinking through these and other questions as we create our first-ever forecast on the futures of young children and their families. Taken alongside Forecast 5.0, which  is being published in just a few weeks, this early childhood forecast will help expand our foresight work to include the entire learning continuum, from Pre-K to K-12 and beyond.

To generate insights to inform the project, we co-hosted a gathering of early childhood stakeholders in Greenville, South Carolina, in September. Some of the observations coming out of that conversation are described below.

  • The sector of early childhood is relatively undefined, with many individuals and organizations that are stakeholders probably not defining themselves as being part of it.
  • That lack of definition creates opportunity, in that innovators do not have to erode rigid infrastructure; it can also create challenges in coordinating action.
  • For those who do identify as being part of the early childhood support ecosystem, there is a tendency, as with many fields, to focus on current problems over future possibilities.
  • A sense that the sector is still trying to achieve goals set long ago through efforts such as the War on Poverty and the creation of Head Start can make it difficult to set new aspirations.
  • Our narratives about families who need social supports, about young children’s capabilities and about the relationship between work and family life can also constrain our thinking about what is possible for the futures of young children and their families.
  • Despite our understanding of the importance of high-quality childcare and early learning experiences, families’ choices are often all too limited.
  • While we know that strong relationships are central to early childhood development, many early childhood services and supports remain institution- versus person-centric.
  • It is all too easy to assume that all children need the same things.
  • Early childhood care providers are too-often viewed as simply wiping noses and changing diapers, instead of providing valuable care and facilitating early learning.
  • As a society, we place relatively little value on this kind of work, and we tend primarily to view investments in early childhood services and supports as paying off in terms of academic attainment and employment productivity, as compared to being valuable in and of themselves.
  • Childcare structures tend to reflect our economic systems, changing as how we work changes. They may not adequately reflect what children and families need.

Such insights are giving us much to consider as we conduct research for the forecast on the futures of young children and their families. We will be exploring some big issues – how we define family and home, how cultural values and narratives affect the choices we make around early childhood and how the individual and the collective complement each other or create friction.

If you see topics we should be taking into account, please feel free to share them with us.