Global Day of Parents: ‘Caregivers are a child’s best resource for early childhood development’ – UP speech-language experts

Posted on June 01, 2020

Global Day of Parents on 1 June is observed annually to honour parents and caregivers for their commitment to their children’s best interests. With the imposed lockdown, this caregiving role has had to extend to that of educator, which has added a new (sometimes unwelcome) angle to parenting.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, households needed more income to make ends meet. As a result, the number of stay-at-home caregivers has steadily declined, with the result that many young children attend early learning centres. However, given the lockdown restrictions, caregivers (which may not necessarily be the child’s biological parents) are concerned about their children’s early childhood development (ECD). In response, educators and ECD specialists have been sharing resources on various social media platforms to facilitate all-day early learning at home.

Yet while caregivers are grateful for the assistance, many now feel they need to assume the role of teacher or ECD educator in addition to that of caregiver. Is this really necessary?

ECD is prioritised in the National Development Plan 2030: Our Future – Make It Work, and the Department of Health has implemented the Side-by-Side campaign as part of the 2015 National Integrated ECD Policy to facilitate ECD. While government’s strategy previously sought to secure adequate nutrition and good health, now it is focused on helping children thrive – and in order to thrive, a child needs to have a secure, loving bond with their caregivers. Children also need a safe environment, and this can take various forms: a single-caregiver-headed home may provide a child with a more nurturing setting than an unstable, abusive home with two parents. Ultimately, early development starts with responsive, loving caregiving at home.

Recent research identified the importance of caregiver-child shared interactions for early language development. Previous research focused on the fact that the number of words that children are exposed to increases their vocabulary and later performance at school. A child’s early language development is inextricably linked to their future academic success because schooling relies on the child’s ability to comprehend and produce language, whether it is spoken or written.

In addition, a study led by developmental cognitive neuroscientist and speech-language pathologist Rachel R Romeo, who is affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that a child’s language abilities depend on the number of conversational turns between caregivers and children, and not solely on the number of words children are exposed to. The authors highlight that young children should not be considered as vessels to be filled with knowledge; instead, early learning and good-quality development take place during natural interactions when a caregiver talks to a child at the child’s conversational level. Waiting for the child to respond, rather than speaking for them, leads to back-and-forth interactions. This responsive interaction between a caregiver and their little one teaches the child more than a prescriptive ECD programme or an intricate and expensive educational toy can. It also strengthens the emotional bond between the two.

Another recent study led by Daniela K O’Neill of the University of Waterloo in Ontario showed that busy, over-stimulating toys could limit the quality of caregiver-child interaction because there are fewer opportunities for the caregiver to comment when playing with the child. This study stresses that “less is more” when it comes to early language stimulation. In fact, young children do not need high-tech toys to have meaningful learning engagements at home – merely being involved in everyday routines with a responsive caregiver provides wonderful learning opportunities for little ones.

However, in order to be most effective, the caregiver must be mentally and emotionally present and engaged. Even though daily activities such as washing, cleaning, cooking or gardening may provide the opportunity for interaction, caregivers must also be good language models, responsively providing input on their child’s level.

These research findings show that caregivers are in fact a child’s best resource for ECD. They don’t necessarily need a variety of novel tasks and equipment as many social media posts and ECD centres would have them believe. Hopefully, this research eases some of the burden for those who are juggling the demands of working from home with other responsibilities.

If you are concerned about your child’s early language development, contact the Clinic for High-Risk Babies (CHRIB) located in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at the University of Pretoria. CHRIB follows a parent-led approach to early intervention and focuses on coaching caregivers to provide responsive language stimulation for young children (from birth to three years of age) with communication difficulties. Email [email protected].


  • Rachel R Romeo et al., 2018, the 30-Million-Word Gap: Children’s Conversational Exposure is Associated With Language-Related Brain Function
  • Hart & Risley, 1995, Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children
  • Daniela K O’Neill et al., 2019, Toy Designs Reduce the Specificity of Mothers’ References to Toy Parts During Toy Play With Their Toddlers

Renata Eccles is a lecturer in the University of Pretoria’s Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology.

Dr Esedra Krüger is a lecturer in the University of Pretoria’s Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology.

Global Day of Parents is commemorated annually on 1 June.

- Author Renata Eccles and Dr Esedra Krüger

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