Moving minds to mobilize support for young children in crisis

written by: Mari Ullmann

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There are roughly 22 million children under the age of 5 in need of humanitarian assistance globally, plus millions of women and families with babies on the way. Many of these children were born into crisis and will spend their entire childhoods displaced from their homes.

As advocates for the power of play to help children build the skills and resilience needed to thrive, the LEGO Foundation has joined the Moving Minds Alliance to champion the unique needs of young children (0-6) and catalyze action to support early childhood in crisis contexts.

The Need for Nurturing Care in Crisis

All young children require the components of  “nurturing care” – good health, optimal nutrition, security and safety, opportunities for early learning, and responsive caregiving, including play-based interactions. Evidence shows that together these conditions promote physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development, and can strengthen the resilience of young children coping with adversity.

The adverse impacts of conflict and crisis are especially acute during the early years of life, when the brain undergoes the most rapid period of development and is exceptionally sensitive to environmental influence. Furthermore, in situations of extreme hardship, the capacity for parents and caregivers to provide consistent care to their young children may be limited, as they cope with their own experiences of stress, insecurity, and loss.

Despite the urgency and the staggering number of children affected, the needs of very young children and caregivers in crisis and displacement are falling through the cracks. Too often, family-centered early childhood services and programming are left out of humanitarian strategy and crisis reponse. A 2018 analysis of 26 active refugee and humanitarian response plans found that only half of the plans made any mention of learning or education for children under 5, and even fewer mentioned interventions to support responsive caregiving.

If we continue to overlook and underfund early human development in situations of prolonged stress and deprivation, millions of young children will not receive the nurturing and supportive care that could help them withstand and recover from these traumatic experiences. Worse still, neglecting the early years will not only have lifelong impacts on the well-being, learning, and behavior of individual children, but it can also carry long-term implications for peace and social cohesion in societies around the world.

Collaborating for Greater Impact

The vision of the Moving Minds Alliance is that families caught up in crisis get the supports they need to rebuild resilience and foster the well-being and development of their young children. Since launching in June 2018, Moving Minds has grown to include nine foundation members, including the two most recent additions, the LEGO Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Recent massive investments from these two foundations have raised the profile of the early years in emergencies considerably, and have the potential to contribute critical evidence to the field. The LEGO Foundation has also introduced new knowledge on how play can reduce the stress and anxiety levels associated with adversity, helping children develop socio-emotional competencies and self-regulation skills as they interact with peers and adults.

But there is so much more to be done than any one organization can achieve alone. By working together and harmonizing their unique strengths, members of the Moving Minds Alliance seek to keep building on this momentum until quality early childhood services become a standard component of crisis response everywhere.

An Ambitious Plan

By scaling up investment and integrating quality early childhood services and caregiver support into existing interventions, more children growing up in adversity can get the responsive care that is so essential in the first years of life. The activities of the Moving Minds Alliance focus on raising awareness about the need and current gaps, catalyzing greater investment in the early years in crisis, building the evidence base on what works in which contexts, and strengthening the capacity of actors at all levels to deliver quality interventions at scale.

It’s an ambitious plan that requires a broad range of partners to get involved, commit and coordinate. But given the high risk of inaction, our future prosperity and stability depend on it. By bringing together some of the world’s leading organizations and advocates supporting young children affected by crisis, the alliance hopes to move minds around the world to understand that the best way to ensure a bright future is to spark a resilient fire from the start.


Mari Ullmann leads the Secretariat of the Moving Minds Alliance. She has worked in education diplomacy and advocacy for more than a decade with organizations such as the Brookings Institution, Plan International, Save the Children, and the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.

Visit to learn more. For updates on the field of ECD in crisis, sign up here to receive the Moving Minds e-newsletter and follow @MovingMindsECD on Twitter.