Thousands of youngsters are struggling to keep up with their peers as parents are unaware of the importance of pre-school development, Save The Children warned.
The charity said failure to properly stimulate toddlers’ brains during nursery years could set them back for decades.
It has teamed up with leading scientists and psychologists to emphasise the importance of learning in pre-school years as a “critical opportunity” for the brain to develop key skills.
Last year almost 130,000 children in England were falling behind with language abilities before they even reached school, Save The Children said.
This means six children in every reception class struggled with their early language skills - the equivalent to every five-year-old pupil in London, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle combined.
In ‘Lighting Up Young Brains’, a new report from Save the Children and the Institute of Child Health at University College London, neuroscientists point to how toddlers’ brains form connections at double the rate of adults’.
It says that as a result a children’s pre-school years are a critical opportunity for the brain to develop key skills like speech and language.
Prof Torsten Baldeweg, from University College London’s Institute of Child Health, said: “Why is it important to stimulate children before they go to school?
“It is precisely this period where we have explosive brain growth, where most of the connections in the brain are formed.
“And we know that if these connections are not formed they, to variable degrees, will suffer longer term consequences to their physical, cognitive but also emotional development. That’s perhaps one of the most important lessons we’ve learned from these studies - that these early years are absolutely critical.
“Much more must be done to boost children’s early learning.”
The report warned that failure to develop adequate language skills can leave children struggling to learn in the classroom and unable to catch up to their peers. The charity said a new poll found that almost half of parents have low expectations for their child’s learning in their early years. Of the 1,000 parents from England surveyed, 47 per cent said they hoped their child would know 100 words by their third birthday - but this is only half of the recommended amount.
“Toddler’s brains are like sponges, absorbing knowledge and making new connections faster than any other time in life,” said Save The Children’s director of UK poverty Gareth Jenkins.
“We’ve got to challenge the misconception that learning can wait for school, as, if a child starts their first day at school behind, they tend to stay behind.
“To tackle the nation’s education gap, we need a new national focus on early learning to give children the best start - not just increasing free childcare hours, but boosting nursery quality to help support children and parents with early learning.”