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Our words are failing us. Outdated terms such as “child care” and “day care” do not communicate the crucial importance of children’s first five years to their lifelong development, learning and health.

Efforts to nurture and educate children before age five are foundational to our families andour nation. With the Build Back Better Act, now before Congress, and its inclusion of $380 billion for child care and preschool, we have an opportunity to support that foundation — 50 years after then-President Nixon vetoed a similar national plan.

Early education is central in the Biden administration’s historic investment in human infrastructure. Our messaging must be clear and compelling this time to win the broad support of policymakers and the public. Yet the current hodgepodge of terminology in our field promotes utter confusion.

 “Child care” was featured in a majority of 2021 headlines about early childhood, used almost interchangeably with “daycare,” “early childhood education,” “early learning,” “early care and education,” “child development,” “nursery school” and “pre-school.” Although child care often refers to infants and toddlers, while preschool is generally for 3 to 5-year-olds, these distinctions are neither consistent nor helpful in the creation of a high-quality continuum of early care and learning.

In the Twittersphere, we see a similar jumble of names: #ChildCare, #ChildCareisEssential, #InHomeChildCare, #ECE, #earlychildhood, #EarlyYears, #earlyed, #earlylearning, #publicpreschool, #universalpreschool, #universalpre-k, #preKforAll and #prekindergarten.

Consider, too, the increasing alphabet soup of acronyms for prekindergarten: pre-K, 3-K, pre-K4, TK (transitional kindergarten in California), UPK (universal pre-K) and VPK (voluntary pre-kindergarten in Florida). Imagine the confusion if “kindergarten” had six names.

Here’s the key problem: Across the political spectrum, many equate child care and day care with “babysitting.”

The current hodgepodge of terminology in our field promotes utter confusion.

For example, Geraldo Rivera’s comment on Fox last month: “What is pre-K? I mean, I’m all for it, you get the kid, and you want them to, you know, evolve as much as possible and be as ready for kindergarten as possible. Pre-K basically is day care, right?”

Exploring underlying beliefs through interviews and surveys, the FrameWorks Institute recently found that while “health care” workers are esteemed, “caregiving” of children is seen as unskilled, associated with the unpaid “labor of love” performed by women (and often women of color). Historical roots of injustice run deep.

These core terms have evolved since the mid-1800s when charities organized large “child care”centers to feed and shelter children while their mothers worked in factories. The goal was primarily custodial. Wealthier parents often sent their children to “nursery schools” focused on learning and development. This ongoing dichotomy hinders forming a more integrated, innovative system to better serve our infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

From the ritual first day of kindergarten through high school graduation, we support over twelve years of children’s public education through local, state and federal taxes. Before then, however, most working families are on their own, struggling to find and finance care for their youngest children within a patchwork of limited options of varying quality.

Parents pay an average of nearly $15,000 a year for full-time infant care, more than some mortgages or college tuitions. No wonder the U.S. ranks last among the world’s richest countries in terms of family-friendly policies.

And our child care providers and early educators — whom we entrust with this huge responsibility — often make less than $13 an hour. Over half of all childcare workers in California, many raising families of their own, qualify for some form of public assistance.

Related: OPINION: Home-based child care providers deserve better pay, working conditions and respect

The pandemic-related upheavals to school and work have brought this high-cost/low-wage dilemma to the fore. The needed ratio of adults to children for infants and toddlers makes early education understandably quite expensive. The free market is not serving the public good in this essential field; we need major public investment.

Here’s a thought experiment: Replace the recent headline “Democrats Aim to Dramatically Reshape Child Care, Preschool”with “Democrats Aim to Dramatically Reshape Support for the Foundational Years.” Which one might be more appealing to the parent at home or the legislator in Washington, D.C.? 

In 2008, England revised its national 0-5 years curriculum and services under the modern, streamlined title, “Early Years Foundation Stage” (EYFS).  Indeed, foundational brain connections for complex language, math and social-emotional skills form during this time. Neuroscience research and innovative studies reveal that young children are active learners, rapidly building knowledge about their world long before they enter kindergarten.

Now, thanks to leaders such as U.S. Senator Patty Murray, the time is ripe for a unified vision of learning, health and well-being for young children. Funds from the Build Back Better Act will provide major investment in the early years — for all children, but especially significant for our most vulnerable.

Updated terminology that reflects current developmental science can communicate the value of high-quality care and learning for children, families, communities and our economy. A powerful metaphor such as “Head Start” is one prime example. “Foundational Years”could be another. Identifying the right overarching term is just one step, but it should ignite public awareness and elevate the entire field.

To achieve a stronger foundation for our young children, we need to deliver a clear, consistent and compelling message. We can’t wait.

Kelly M. Campbell is a faculty member in The Developing Child program at University of California, Berkeley.

This story about early education and Build Back Better was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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