During its early years in the 1950s UNESCO supported the early childhood programmes of the World Organization for Early Childhood Education (OMEP), an international non-governmental organization focusing on children from age 0 to 8.
In the early 1970s international efforts focused on the promotion of a child’s right to education and UNESCO began to be directly involved in the field of early childhood education, in particular pre-primary education and parent education.
By 1979, early childhood programmes became increasingly viewed as an issue beyond the scope of formal education. More emphasis was placed on establishing a comprehensive approach to early childhood and fostering an environment conducive to a child’s learning and self-expression. This led to the coining of the term ‘Early Childhood Care and Education’ to describe activities for pre-school children at the UNESCO-sponsored International Consultation on Pre-School Education in November 1981.
At UNESCO’s 25th General Conference in 1989, delegates agreed that the organization should embark on a Young Child and the Family Environment Project to coordinate all activities undertaken by UNESCO to benefit pre-school children and their families. This project formed the basis of the Early Childhood section within UNESCO’s Division of Basic Education. The section has the mission to safeguard and promote the development of young children and to ensure their smooth transition from home to early childhood services and later to primary education.
The policy development work on early childhood care and education is guided by the 1990 Jomtien Declaration on Education for All, stating that learning begins at birth and that early childhood care and education is an essential component of basic education. Based on the 2000 Dakar Framework for Action, which had included the development of early childhood care and education as the first of its six main goals, UNESCO seeks to expand and improve comprehensive early childhood care and education for all children.
Within this framework, UNESCO’s Early Childhood programmes focuses on upstream policy work, supporting governments through policy review, capacity building and publication activities.