Opinion: Kids pay the price for shortage of daycare spots in Quebec

There is more at play than the impact on parents. The social and emotional development of their children is at stake.

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The most common issue raised regarding insufficient daycare spaces has been about how parents are unable to work if they have to stay home with their kids, resulting in financial instability and familial stress. Mostly hidden from the public is the impact of this shortage on children directly, and how kids aren’t undergoing optimal development that is accomplished through peer interactions and play because of the barrier in attending daycare.

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According to the Ministry of Families of Quebec, more than 37,000 children were on the waiting list for a daycare space at the end of September. This statistic comes nearly two years after the launch of the Grand chantier pour les families — a plan by the Quebec government to create 37,000 subsidized daycare spaces before 2024-’25. 

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As we are well over halfway through the envisioned time period to accomplish this goal and continue to see thousands of children without a spot, it is safe to assume the issue will persist if governmental measures continue to occur at the same pace. 

The ages of three to six are marked by extraordinary social and cognitive development, much of which is influenced by a child’s interactions with peers in daycare. When such growth is not experienced, many children enter grade school with poor social skills and face a big disadvantage, since peer relationships are essential for personal competence, self-esteem and a sense of belonging. 

Research indicates that children who start kindergarten with friends show better academic performance and attitudes toward going to school. Daycare is a great place for children to make friendships, but if these connections are not achieved, the child risks entering grade school without this protective factor.

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Play with peers encourages the development of prosocial values and behaviours, including sharing, helping, comforting, co-operating and feeling empathy. Cognitive skills of problem-solving, conflict resolution, planning, perspective-taking and negotiation evolve in play as well.

Studies reveal that sustained exposure to the social environment of daycares helps children better recognize and manage social expectations, which can positively influence their behaviour. Since they want other children to continue to play with them, they start to anticipate the consequences of misbehaving and improve their impulse control, such as resisting aggressive actions or yelling. The child’s desire to make interactions with others pleasurable and maintain friendships and the approval of peers leads to a decrease in egocentrism, determined by child development academics.

Children learn perspective-taking through play, bringing about the maturity of theory of mind — the understanding and appreciation that other people have different wishes, knowledge, beliefs and emotions. Research shows this happens when peers express opposing desires for the content and unfolding of play scenarios, incentivizing children to compromise. 

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Additionally, pretend play with peers has been found to help children with emotional development, as they learn to understand their own and others’ emotions. They are able to explore and express emotions and wishes in various ways in the imaginary world of play. Children work on self-regulating the difficult emotions of anger, stress or frustration that come up in play, and develop regulation skills that are used for the rest of their lives.  

All of the mentioned characteristics of development grow through a child’s process of learning how to play with peers and make friends. Not having friends has been identified as a risk factor in resilience research, which is concerned with how well a person can adapt to challenges in life and bounce back. 

The government of Quebec needs to put a higher priority on increasing the number of subsidized daycare spaces and qualified staff so that all children on waiting lists can secure a spot. All children deserve the opportunity to enjoy the social and cognitive benefits that daycares provide, not just those whose parents have the connections or financial means to get in. 

Liana Kletnieks is studying human development in the bachelor of social work program at McGill University. 

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