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Young children and the ‘polycrisis’

By Sheldon Shaeffer, Chair, Board of Directors, and Evelyn Santiago, Executive Director, Asia-Pacific Regional Network for Early Childhood (ARNEC)

A better understanding of, and a stronger response to, the impacts of climate change is essential — especially regarding young children. Research results and the related discourse arising out of the recent COP28 conference on climate change have expanded the evidence base for that conclusion.

Climate change is only one of the components of the ‘polycrisis’ now facing the world, i.e. the simultaneous occurrence of several catastrophic events – among others being COVID-19, accelerating environmental degradation, increasing economic and social disparities, more frequent conflicts, and greater population displacement.

This polycrisis is having many serious impacts on the world and its people, but of particular severity are the increased developmental and learning delays and losses of young children related to their mental and physical health, nutrition, protection, stimulation, and, overall, the responsive caregiving they are meant to receive. These losses can in turn result in poorer health and malnutrition, enhanced toxic stress, worse learning outcomes, inadequate social-emotional development, and, ultimately, greater exclusion and inequity.

The polycrisis is already dramatically re-shaping the world in which the children of today must function and is leading us to an ever more uncertain and unpredictable future into which these children will enter — and in which they will need to survive and thrive as adults.


As a result of COVID-19, many early childhood development programmes and preschools around the world were closed, especially those funded by family and community contributions, many not to re-open. Millions of young children were forced to discontinue their pre-primary education, many not to return. Because early childhood is such a sensitive period for a child’s holistic development, the development and learning losses resulting from COVID-19 have been especially significant and will likely have long-term effects on an individual’s future educational achievement and economic potential and productivity.

The impacts of these closures on young children were compounded by the fact that many of them live in families that were ill-prepared for, and also most affected by, the challenges arising from COVID-19 – not only a lack of play and learning materials and of access to remote pre-primary alternatives but also, more generally, greater poverty and food insecurity, less access to health services, and increased toxic stress in the home. In other words, those young children already vulnerable before the pandemic became more vulnerable after the pandemic.

Environmental degradation

Young children are least responsible for environmental degradation, but they bear the brunt of its development-related impacts – and have the fewest resources and the least capacity to address them. Children’s development is disrupted by many environmental challenges including indoor and outdoor air pollution, exposure to harmful toxins such as mercury and lead, and the lack of clean and protective play and recreational spaces. In particular, young children’s exposure to pollution results in a higher risk of disease and developmental delays that can reduce an individual’s long-term cognitive, socio-emotional, and physical potential.

Climate change

About a billion children, or nearly half of the world’s children, live in countries at high risk of severe climate-related events (e.g., floods, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes/typhoons/cyclones, and rising sea levels) and suffer from the impacts of climate change including increased toxic stress, greater poverty and food insecurity, and large-scale population displacement.

Asia and the Pacific, where we live and work, is especially susceptible to climate change:

  • Over 40% of the people living in areas of high or extremely high drought severity are in Asia.
  • More than half a billion children live in extremely high flood occurrence zones; the vast majority of them live in Asia.
  • By 2050 most the world’s urban population will be found in Asia where climate change effects are amplified due to faster warming; in addition, many mega-cities in Asia are threatened by sea level rise.
  • Changes to the ocean, including warming, ocean acidification, reduced oxygen levels, and sea level rise, affect both ocean ecosystems and the people that rely on them – most notably those in the Pacific.

The impacts of the polycrisis are reversing the gains of the SDGs and are also widening conditions of inequality among young children, their families, and their communities. Young children everywhere face increased risks to their well-being and development and their ability (and their right) to thrive and live in dignity.

The (lack of) response

The problem is that many educators, including those focused on early childhood development, ignore or, at most, pay lip service to these crises. They seem unwilling or unable to envision what the world may be like 10-20-30 years from now and therefore cannot understand what needs to be done now in order to help children prepare for the world they will find in the future. They reform systems, revise curricula, and teach children as if tomorrow’s world will be no different from today’s.

There is, in fact, much talk about the “transformation” of education, but in terms of climate change, for example, this often means only tweaking the curriculum by adding “environment” to the timetable, training teachers on what climate change is, making schools “greener”, and helping children follow more sustainable lifestyles and become more conservation-minded as “lovers of nature, and “stewards of the planet” – which are all important, but are not enough.

In other words, there is virtually no discussion of what happens if these greener schools and more sustainable lifestyles are ultimately unable to stop progression towards the temperature “tipping point”. As a result, there is also virtually no discussion of how to develop in children the knowledge and skills (especially social-emotional skills) they will need in the future to mitigate, adapt to, and be resilient amid the challenges they will face.

International conferences and declarations on education, institutional strategy revisions, and education reform frameworks often pay little attention to these crises — beyond, perhaps, one plenary presentation at a conference, one paragraph in a new policy, or one bullet point in a reform document. Even when there might be some attention paid to “children” (or, more often, “youth”) in any climate change discourse, younger children, who are most vulnerable to climate change and bear the heaviest burden of its impacts, are mostly ignored. And even if the importance of young children in reacting to climate change – and in helping to build community and societal resilience to its impacts – is recognised, early childhood development programmes and policies remain woefully underfinanced across the world.

We do understand better the impacts of the polycrisis on young children and their families, now and in the future, and are now beginning to understand possible responses to these impacts. But the discourse around young children and the polycrisis is still woefully limited. It is therefore essential to advocate — in the kinds of conferences, declaration, and documents mentioned above — for a much stronger focus on the polycrisis and its impacts on children and on ways in which education and early childhood development systems must respond in order to help nurture children who can face the challenges their future will bring.


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