Playtime at the Rosemount Center in D.C.
At the Rosemount Center in Northwest, D.C, teachers shepherd a group of toddlers toward a brightly colored rug. They sing songs. And say their names.
Rosemount provides bilingual education to children from birth to age 5. Some families pay tuition. Others send their children for free, through Head Start and Early Head Start programs. The goal, says curriculum director Jennifer Huerter, is to boost children's development. So Rosemount's classrooms are carefully constructed to accommodate the smallest students.
"Because babies learn by exploring," she says. "You need opportunities for them to crawl. They have mirrors so they can see themselves. They can see their friend next to them at them at the mirror."
And teachers tailor their lessons to babies' developmental needs.
"Pairing language, mimicking language. You know when they say a sound, repeating that sound, and a lot of parallel talk. This is up high. This is down low," she says.
It all seems simple enough. But Matthew Melmed says activities such as these can have profound effects when it comes to promoting infant and toddler development.
"Early relationships are the foundations on which we build our identity and our future. Everything we do for the rest of our lives is really rooted in the nature of those early experiences and early relationships," he says.
Melmed is executive director of Zero to Three, a national nonprofit, based in D.C., dedicated to supporting the health and development of infants and toddlers. He says recent advances in neuroscience have underscored the importance of early childhood education.
"And what the neuroscience is telling us is that in the early days and months of life, the brain is going at a pace that that far exceeds any other point in our lifetime," he says.
Researchers say as much as 80 percent of brain development happens by age three. Ninety percent happens by age five. Good, loving care can boost brain development, and stress can inhibit it.
"So what a baby or toddler experiences in terms of the care that they receive not only from their parent but from other care givers is critically important," Melmed says.
But providing high quality infant and toddler care isn't easy. HyeSook Chung is executive director of the advocacy organization DC Action for Children. She says infant and toddler care is expensive, because the classrooms require a higher ratio of teachers to students.
"The cost of a quality infant/toddler care was $24,000 to $28,000 for infants while providing care for a pre-school child is between $12,000 and $16,000," Chung says.
And those costs are passed on to parents. So many parents who make too much money to qualify for public subsidies, still have trouble paying for the programs. Meanwhile, in neighborhoods where many parents do qualify for subsidies, access to programs is limited.
"Children under four, less than 50 percent of the population in that age bracket are being served in wards 7 and 8, while other wards can be up to 65 percent being served," she says.
And that's a problem, Chung says, because the achievement gap between children from low-income families and their more affluent peers already begins to develop by the time they start school.
"Even at kindergarten, we're spending a lot of efforts on remediation. And we know that if we had entered this child's life earlier, we could have set their path in a different way," she says.
As D.C. Council Chairman, Vincent Gray championed universal pre-K legislation. Now that he’s mayor, he says it's time to move on to infant and toddler care.
"You want the answer? The answer is invest in our children now for a better, stable future for the District of Columbia," he says.
This week, Gray joined other city leaders to break ground on Educare, a new infant and toddler center in Ward 7. The center will serve children from low-income families and is scheduled to open next spring.
Gray told the crowd Educare is just the beginning of the District's commitment to expand early childhood education.
"Frankly, if I were in a position to be able to have a fetus in the program, I would do that," he says.
But as budgets make their way through Congress and City Hall, parents worry about potential cuts to child care. If cuts do come, Tahja Polk says they will likely affect parents at the Southeast child care center where she works. And she'll have to make some tough decisions as well.
"I can't choose to have my children in before or after care or pay my rent. I have to pay the rent. So something has to give," she says.
But Matthew Melmed at Zero to Three says parents shouldn't have to make those kinds of choices. And he says the issue goes beyond city budgets and child care subsidies. He says its time for leaders -- both locally and nationally -- to change the way they think about early childhood education.
"If you were to compare what we invest in the United States in higher education compared to what we invest in the zero-to-five years, you would find that there's a dramatic disproportionate investment in our education system at that end of the spectrum. There needs to be a recognition that the early years are as critically important as the later years in life," he says.
The investment will pay off, he says. But, these days, it's not clear who can afford to make it.