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The first few years of a child's life play a key role in their development.

or should it be

The first few years of children's lives play a key role in their development.

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    First option is great. There is no problem using their as a gender-neutral singular: "The customer and their wallet". – oerkelens Feb 21 '14 at 12:52
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Either is fine, but I find the sentence overall awkward. Perhaps a better way to state it would be

The first few years of life are a critical time in a child's development.

Or something similar. I don't understand what role a period of time plays in development. Parental touch, baby talk, nutrition, etc. are things that play roles in development. As an added bonus, you avoid the use of singular they, which I wholeheartedly endorse but your reader might not.

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