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Babies, as it turns out, learn more, and earlier, than most of us know.

Humans, in fact, are born learning, as scientists have discovered in decades of research on infant brain development. Before a newborn is even a few hours old, he or she will readily mimic an adult who pokes out their tongue.

Learning continues at a rapid pace for the first five years of a child's life. During that time, a child's brain is busy firing neurons at a fast clip, building a crucial network of connections up until about age 3. The activity slows down then, and the brain shifts gears to focus on strengthening the neural pathways that already have been constructed.

Every interaction with parents is critical to this development. Everyday moments — reading at bedtime, talking at the dinner table, playing in the park — are learning moments, food for a growing brain.

And like the food children eat, it's essential for those interactions to be the right kind, healthy and nurturing. Otherwise, development is stunted, perhaps beyond repair.

Kindergarten and beyond is too late to play catch-up. The problem is, America hasn't been willing to pay for it. Early childhood education is the absolute best investment our nation can make, but we fail to appreciate it. A mere 3% of the $1.3 trillion our country spends on education every year is spent on early education.

America can't call itself the "land of opportunity" as long as the deck is stacked against poor and working-class kids from the start.

Illinois, for one, took a few recent steps to level the playing field. Gov. J.B. Pritzker's budget includes a $50 million increase in the Early Childhood Block Grant, $100 million to build and repair child care centers across the state, and an expansion of the Child Care Assistance Program, which provides money to help low-income families pay for good preschool and early learning.

Every week, 11 million children end up in basic child care, and nine times out of 10 the programs are sub-par. Families of modest means can't afford the $2,000 a month or more that good early learning programs can cost. So their children fall behind.

Low-income children pay the steepest price. By age 3, they've heard 30 million fewer words than higher-income kids. By age 5, they've made 1,300 fewer visits to libraries and museums. By the first day of kindergarten, they can be up to two years behind in language development.

If they're exposed to "toxic stress" in the home — such as violence, neglect or abuse, parental addiction or mental illness — they're more likely to develop behavior problems in school.

All of this adds up to an opportunity gap, that leads to an achievement gap, a college enrollment gap and an employment gap. More and better preschool is fundamental to closing that gap.

 -- Chicago Sun-Times

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