Four-year-olds play in the sandbox at their playschool, January 1993.
Patrick Pettit (Regina Leader-Post)

When Saskatchewan became a province in 1905, its population included 108,755 children, the majority of whom were part of larger families and living in rural areas. In 2001 there were over 280,000 children in Saskatchewan, the majority living in urban settings, and in smaller families on average. Children are considered a resource to be nourished and supported by families and communities, both as children and as future adult citizens. While parents have always had the primary responsibility for raising children, even in the early days of the province communities rallied to provide services to children, such as basic education, that were beyond the means of most parents.

In 1905, however, Saskatchewan children's future was usually on the farm, and few completed a high school education. Today's children face a more diverse future in a much more complex society, and most will need substantial education and training to be successful in the modern economy. Government services and supports have gradually increased over the years to help parents raise children effectively. Education programs have been significantly enhanced, particularly for children with disabilities. Public health measures such as vaccinations have reduced the risk of epidemic disease that formerly affected child populations. More attention is devoted to protecting the rights of children and to ensuring their input into decisions affecting their lives. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child set out basic rights for children in 1992.

Both the provincial and federal governments are involved in programs to benefit children. The Saskatchewan government is responsible for education, child welfare, and health services. National programs such as the Canada Child Tax Benefit provide income support and supplementation directly to low- and middle-income parents. The federal government also assists with the costs of a variety of provincial services like early learning and care, as well as helping individual youth and young adults with access to post-secondary education. Until recently, professional models for children's services focused on children themselves, and child-centred approaches were common in areas such as education and child welfare. More recently, it has been recognized that better results are achieved when children's needs are considered within the context of their families. New models are under development which, for example, increase parent involvement in schools, or offer support to parents and extended families to reduce the need for intensive child welfare services.

One in four children in Saskatchewan is Aboriginal, and that proportion is expected to rise. Historically, Aboriginal children have been less likely than the mainstream population to be healthy, to complete their education, and to grow up to participate in the labour force. Communities and governments are devoting specific attention to improving the educational success of Aboriginal children in order to ensure their full participation as adults in the economic and social life of the province.

In the decades prior to the 1970s, it was relatively common for one spouse, usually the woman, to stay home to care for young children. As a result, public investment was focused on the needs of children as they reached “school age”: investment in younger children was limited, on the presumption that a parent was available to provide the needed care and support to the child. Changes in the labour force participation of women and the increased incidence of single parenthood have focused more attention on the need for support from outside the family to meet children's needs before they reach school age. While support for preschool age children remains relatively inconsistent and incoherent, parents, communities, and governments are gradually moving towards approaches that support children along their whole developmental path from birth to adulthood.

What makes children healthy and able to grow up to be productive citizens? Many things determine optimal health and development, some inherited and others a result of the child's environment. A debate has long centred on how some children thrive despite being raised in difficult circumstances, while others struggle despite many advantages. Factors related to poverty - parental unemployment, inadequate nutrition and housing - are frequently associated with problems in children's health and development. Parents and experts agree that children need to feel safe and secure as well as to be loved and respected, protected from harm, and stimulated to encourage healthy mental and physical development within their capacities. Research confirms that a positive relationship with a nurturing adult, good parenting skills, and a supportive community have a tremendous impact on the health and development of a child.

Janet Mitchell