By Chege Ngugi
Africa Regional Director, ChildFund International
COVID-19 has taught us many things. In education, it has taught us that at-home learning is both important and possible. When the pandemic hit and schools were closed for almost a year, parents faced the new challenge of being parents and teachers at the same time.
Embracing this role was not easy for most parents. While some said that they were busy working, others claimed that they could not support their children’s learning because they were not teachers and simply did not know how to teach them.
Luckily, some children benefited from virtual learning interventions that were rolled out by governments and other stakeholders including radio, TV and online lessons while some received study materials. Unfortunately, for others, especially those living in remote and impoverished communities with limited access to facilities such as the internet or a radio, learning came to a halt.
While most of the interventions targeted primary and secondary schools, a group that was overlooked is that of infants and toddlers, some of whom had started pre-school and those still in the care of their parents.
According to renowned Early Childhood Development (ECD) champion and advocate for young children and families, Dr. James Mustard, early human development sets a child’s trajectory in later learning and life. From birth to age 5, a child’s brain develops more than at any other time in life. And early brain development has a lasting impact on a child’s ability to learn and succeed in school and later in life.
It is therefore crucial that parents are empowered to nurture their children and fully support their growth and development. After all, a parent is a child’s first teacher. They feed and nourish their children’s hearts, souls and minds way before they start interacting with other learning structures.
As the world marks the International Literacy Day on 8th September, there is need to reflect on the importance of strengthening the role of parents and families as the child’s first teachers. It is time to reimagine learning and embrace parents’ role as educators. For this to happen, parents need to be equipped with the right attitude, knowledge, and skills to give children a strong start in life. In this regard, ChildFund has been implementing early childhood development (ECD) programs in under-resourced communities across Africa, to support parents and caregivers to build responsive parenting skills.
To reach their full potential, children need the five interrelated components of nurturing care: good health, adequate nutrition, security and safety, responsive caregiving and opportunities for learning (UNICEF, World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO), 2018). Based on this Nurturing Care Framework, these programs operate through group sessions. They use fun, interactive activities like games and role-playing to build on what parents already know and do. Programs also integrate home visits in which trained community health volunteers visit the most vulnerable families to review information learned, making referrals to health, social welfare and other locally available services when necessary. Illiterate or not, parents participating in these programs are well armed with the information they need as they are taught in their local languages in their local environments and supported with visually illustrated materials that make comprehension easier.
These programs aren’t just for mothers. They are also for fathers. Male involvement in parenting is equally crucial for the development of well-functioning families and children. And in some regions, due to the prevalence of HIV and AIDS, many grandparents who have turned into the primary caregivers are also engaged and are learning new things even in old age. Things like positive discipline, allowing children to ask questions, the importance of adults playing with children – things that used to be unheard of in Africa.
When COVID-19 hit, it did not stop these caregivers from supporting their children’s growth and development. They were empowered and knew how to support their children in all aspects including learning. Unfortunately, millions of children in Africa still have limited access to nurturing care. In the words of American pediatrician and researcher, Dimitri Christakis; “If we change the beginning of the story, we change the whole story.” Early experiences have a great impact on children’s development and investing in parent education can alter these experiences for the better, and ultimately lead to the development of successful adults who can contribute positively to humanity. Involved parents can make a positive and lasting impact on their children’s learning ability and overall growth. Properly nurtured children are more likely to perform better academically and lead healthier and more productive lives as adults.