What is the world’s most vital resource? It’s not oil. It’s not gold. It’s our children. As acclaimed economist Jeffrey Sachs puts it: “Investing in the health, education and skills of children offers the highest economic returns to a country.”

The earlier we start making these investments, the better. According to UNICEF, early childhood represents a unique window of opportunity for investing in children’s cognitive and physical development. While these investments should cover a wide range of needs, there is one need we often overlook: play.

We all know that play comes intuitively to children, but few of us are aware of just how vital it is to their development. Dr Sam Wang and Dr Sandra Aamodt, who have researched how play enhances brain development, say that “the 19th-century kindergarten movement, which popularized the concept of pre-school education, was based on the idea that songs, games and other activities are a means for children to gain perceptual, cognitive, social and emotional knowledge that prepares them for entering the world”.

We often hear about the successes of Chinese and Japanese students, who earn top science, reading and math scores in the international PISA exam, but less discussed is their playful and experiential approach to schooling before second grade. Even in later years, many students in China and Japan receive short play breaks every 50 minutes.

A case study from Germany reveals just how important play is for a young child’s future success. In the 1970s, many of the country’s play-based kindergartens were transformed into “centres for cognitive achievement”. Longitudinal research comparing 50 play-based centres with 50 cognitive achievement centres found that by age 10 the children who had played in kindergarten “were more advanced in reading and mathematics and they were better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. They excelled in creativity and intelligence, oral expression and ‘industry’.”

As this research indicates, early childhood education represents a critical window for giving children access to play opportunities. It’s no coincidence that the five countries that top the chart in UNICEF’s recently released report, Child Well-Being in Rich Countries – the Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden – are all countries that make substantive investments in high-quality, play-rich daycare and preschool opportunities.

But do these investments pay off? According to Science Daily, a longitudinal study revealed that for every US$ 1 invested in a Chicago early childhood education programme, nearly US$ 11 is projected to return to society over the children’s lifetimes.

Global studies have found that investment in early childhood development reduces crime rates and increases future wage-earning potential, thus increasing government revenue. UNICEF reports that a simulation on increasing pre-school enrolment in 73 countries found benefits in terms of higher future wages of US$ 6.4 to US$ 17.6 per dollar invested. The simulation indicated potential long-term benefits which range from US$ 11 to US$ 34 billion.

Increasingly, our world economy depends not just on productive workers, but on creative ones. An IBM survey of more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide revealed that the single most important trait – “more than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision” – to successfully navigating an increasingly complex world is creativity.

In his extensive research on innovation, educator Tony Wagner identifies a pattern – a childhood of creative play leads to deep-seated interests, which in adolescence and adulthood blossom into a deeper purpose for career and life goals. Play, passion and purpose: these are the forces that drive young innovators.

Around the world, play opportunities are disappearing, and countries are paying the price…literally. Society pays the cost of remedial help, public benefits, medical care and even incarceration. Meanwhile, we are hindering our world’s next generation of innovative thinkers and business leaders. Most tragically of all, our children are missing out on the childhood they deserve. Depriving them is a grave moral failure, and one that we simply cannot afford.

Author: Darell Hammond is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of KaBOOM!

Image: A child plays in pool of colourful balls REUTERS/Sheng Li