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Let them play: PATH takes on early childhood development

July 2, 2014 by Lesley Reed

We’re helping parents meet their children’s needs in ways that are easy for them to incorporate into their daily lives and don't cost much money.

Man smiles down at baby in his arms, who reaches her arms up to him. A woman in the background looks on, smiling.

To build cognitive, physical, social, and language abilities, we must reach children by age two. Photo: PATH.

My husband has a running joke. When our son complains, my husband puts on his best old man voice and says, “When I was a boy, all we had to play with was rocks.” My son rolls his eyes, while I picture the toddlers I saw in a Zambian township crowded with AIDS orphans. The little guys were playing with rocks—they had nothing else.

Children, it’s clear, have to play—but rocks only go so far in stimulating their busting-to-learn brains. So when I heard that PATH was piloting early childhood development (ECD) programs for the youngest Africans, I was intrigued. ECD has typically been housed in education ministries and preschool programs, not global health organizations. To learn more, I sat down with Matthew Frey, who leads our ECD work, shortly after the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation awarded PATH a grant to roll out the work on a bigger scale.

Q. Why is PATH integrating ECD with health?

A toddler sits on a mat in front of a young woman. He holds a pan and a wooden spoon.

Toys don’t have to be elaborate. A pan and a spoon can stimulate a young child’s interest. Photo: PATH.

A. Early childhood development encompasses a range of interventions—child care and stimulation, nutrition, health, child protection. In the last few years there’s been growing recognition that trying to influence development starting with preschool is too late. To build cognitive, physical, social, and language abilities, we must get to kids by age two.

The health sector is the only way to reach these very young children at risk and their caregivers. PATH’s approach is to piggyback onto existing systems, training community health workers and nurses who are already giving health advice and services to parents. We add skills in tracking developmental milestones and counseling parents in caring for and stimulating young children so they develop to their fullest.

A recent study in The Lancet showed just how powerful this is. Community health workers in Jamaica made weekly home visits over a two-year period to encourage parents to play and talk with their children. Twenty years later, these kids had a 25 percent greater earning power than the controls. It’s just amazing.

Q. Where is PATH doing this work?

A. We’re targeting kids who are malnourished or infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS in Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa. We know these kids often start life poorly nourished or underweight and have weaker immune systems. They also lag behind in many developmental and health indicators and they’re likely to do worse in school.

The need for greater care in these places is so compelling. We went to a banana plantation in Mozambique and saw seven kids, aged one to three, sitting on a mat in the midday sun. They were being watched by a five year old. In one of our Kenyan districts, 57 percent of children under age five are regularly left alone. The opportunity costs are huge.

We’re helping parents meet their children’s needs in ways that are easy for them to incorporate into their daily lives and don’t cost money. If they take their child to the fields, we suggest they point out the trees and birds on the way. We show them how to make toys that encourage a child’s development and teach them games that help children stand up, walk, and reach. It’s basic stuff, but we find that many parents, most of whom are loving and dedicated to their children, have not realized just how much of a difference these simple activities can make in their child’s life.

Q. What do you hope to see with this new push in ECD?

A. It’s rare to get funding that allows you to think in a more creative and comprehensive way about what children and families need. The science and evidence-base have now come together, and donors are starting to recognize that we can see results with fairly modest investments. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and BHP Billiton Sustainable Communities, which also support our ECD work in Africa, have given us an exciting opportunity. With their support, we expect to see better nourished kids, parents using health facilities more, toys in homes, and parents reading and interacting with their kids—all of which will contribute to healthier futures for children.