Five Simple Habits to Help Our Children Thrive

By Ron Ferguson, Jeff Howard, and Mayor Martin J. Walsh

Did you know that 80% of a child’s brain development occurs during the first three years of life? That fact presents a challenge: it means we can’t wait for schools to prepare our kids to learn. But it’s also an opportunity, because much of what youngsters do need to become lifelong learners is right in the hands and hearts of those closest to them—their parents, grandparents, and caregivers.

Making the most of this opportunity is the mission of a new, grassroots movement called the Boston Basics Campaign. It’s a vision developed by the Black Philanthropy Fund and the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard. And it has grown into a partnership that includes the City of Boston, Boston Medical Center, WGBH, and soon, we hope, every health care setting, community center, daycare classroom, and child’s home in Boston.

Our goal is to help parents and caregivers adopt five easy practices that research has proven are essential to brain development from birth to age three.

Here are the Boston Basics that children need to thrive:

First, maximize love and manage stress. Showing affection and patience at every opportunity helps children build confidence to explore the world on their own.

“Second, talk, sing, and point a lot as you interact. Humans are social animals, designed to communicate from the moment they are born. Talking and singing to infants and toddlers stimulates their brains and develops their skills. And, pointing helps them connect words to the associated objects.”

Third, teach them to count things, group objects, and compare everyday items. Having fun with numbers, names, shapes, and patterns is how children learn to understand their world. And it prepares them to learn and love math.

Fourth, allow children to explore the world through free movement and play. Curiosity is a child’s built-in engine for learning. It’s our job to encourage it and provide safe outlets. At home or in the playground, help kids dive into their environment and develop their “mind’s eye.”

Finally, read and discuss stories. Whether made-up or factual, the people, places, and events of stories are the building blocks for our children’s imagination and much of their learning later in life.

The goal of the Boston Basics Campaign is to promote these habits anywhere and everywhere, from churches and stores to daycares and community centers. We know that raising kids is hard, and it’s only made harder by the stresses of work, money, illness, violence, and more. So we want to make our entire city a relentlessly supportive place for all those who care for young children.

We’re asking everyone to help. If you care for young children, or are close to anyone who does, that means you. You can start by checking out some introductory videos and downloadable materials at

We believe every child deserves to start school ready to learn and thrive. The power to give that strong foundation to every infant and toddler is in our collective hands as a community. We invite you to join us in this vital work.

Ron Ferguson is the faculty director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard

Jeff Howard is Chairman of the Black Philanthropy Fund

Martin J. Walsh is Mayor of Boston


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