Early childhood education has been in the spotlight since President Obama announced in the State of the Union address his goal of universal preschool. In a time of tight budgets, new proposals must pass the “smart” test, and in this case, there are few investments offering such high returns down the road.

The Nobel laureate economist James Heckman finds that every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood programs returns up to $300 over a child’s lifetime through better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity, and lower crime. (Ironically, prison costs in some states leave even less for early education.) Failing to invest in children early in life, he argues, is simply shortsighted.

Investments are particularly important for poor children. In 2011, 6.4 million children growing up in poverty were entering the race far behind the starting line. Yet, if projections hold, less than 8% of the federal budget will support children by the end of the decade.

The Pittsburgh region takes its early childhood programming seriously. As the home of Fred Rogers and his venerable children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Pittsburgh has always understood the importance of creating a solid foundation for kids. And that tradition continues today in programming and collaboration.

The Pittsburgh-produced show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, for example, picks up where Mister Rogers left off with a new animated series produced by the Fred Rogers Company through PBS Kids. The program focuses on those all-important social-emotional skills that we now know set the stage for successful learning in school. The show helps kids understand and deal with their feelings, like jealousy or disappointment, and it helps ease their worries by, for example, letting them know what to expect when they start school. It is these kinds of skills, such as learning to socialize, cultivating self-discipline, staying on task, and others that education writer Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed argues really matter to later success.

Others in the region are also working to effectively use media and technology to help children get a head start. The Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College is working with the National Association for the Education of Young Children to define quality media experiences for young children. Similarly, at a new Early Education STEM Center at Marshall University, teachers like studio educator Brea Wiles are partnering with local universities and researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab to design and use technology in ways that are appropriate for the early childhood classroom.

The Fred Rogers Center has also partnered with the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC), the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and the United Way of Allegheny County Literacy Task Force on various efforts. With PAEYC, for example, the Center is providing resources and guidance in early literacy and digital media literacy for poor parents, family childcare providers, and early childhood educators. Its Early Learning Environment (Ele), a web-based support system for parents, also includes on-the-ground professional development and parent awareness.

Other organizations that are helping to prepare Pittsburgh’s youngest citizens for a bright future include Baby Promise at the Kingsley Association, an early learning program for underserved families that helps prepare kids for school through literacy, social skills, and health and nutrition.  WordPlay, also from the Fred Rogers Company, creates “while you wait” language games for parents and kids to play together while waiting for the bus. Ready Freddy, a program of the Office of Child Development at University of Pittsburgh, hosts in-person kindergarten club events to prepare young children and families for transition to school age, plus online virtual tours to introduce kids to their schools and teachers.

This kind of experimentation is what Heckman called for in a Q&A with Ezra Klein in the Washington Post back in 2010:

“The key idea” in any effort to expand early childhood education, he argued, “is to encourage more experimentation across a broader range of projects, targeting a larger range of people and providing a refocus of what these programs are all about, which is teaching aspects of self-confidence and teaching these soft skills.”

Pittsburgh is definitely doing its part.