On International Children’s Day, we reflect on the kind of world our children will inherit. To prosper in a rapidly changing world, all children need more than basic literacy and numeracy. They need to be creative, critical thinkers and problem-solvers. Early childhood development can help level the playing field from the early stages of life.
Research shows us that early nutrition and psychosocial stimulation in the first years of life are vital for brain development and healthy growth.
In 1986, Elaine Burke began knocking on doors in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Jamaica’s capital Kingston, asking parents if she could weigh and measure their young children. Burke, a local community health aide, was looking for children whose growth had been stunted by poor nutrition or health, which can have long-term effects on cognitive development. A research team with the University of the West Indies, including Sally Grantham-McGregor, a British pediatrician settled in Jamaica, and researcher Susan Walker, wanted to test what was a revolutionary idea at the time – that home-made toys and words of praise could boost the lives of disadvantaged, stunted children.
Over the next two years, community health aides like Burke made weekly visits to encourage mothers in the program to stimulate their children. The children’s development was measured and compared with a similar group of disadvantaged and stunted children whose mothers weren’t in the program. Researchers continued to follow and measure both sets of children over the years. Children in the program scored higher on IQ tests, stayed in school longer and exhibited less aggression. The good news keeps coming. A follow-up study supported by the World Bank’s SIEF impact evaluation trust fund, found that the children now are earning 25 percent more than children whose mothers didn’t receive the program.
Burke, who has since retired, recently guided Daphna Berman, a writer, and Aisha Faquir, a photographer and videographer, through some of the Kingston neighborhoods where she had worked. Burke spoke about the program, the difference between a homemade and store bought toy and why you should never underestimate a mother’s desire to do what’s best for her child.
Q: Back in the 1980s when you started, what were the homes like for these children from poor families?
The children didn’t really have anything to do at home. There was no stimulation at all. The parents were so poor and they were focused on the basics of how to feed their children. Playing with toys wasn’t part of this. Because of this, even before we could stimulate the children we had to stimulate the parents and get them to understand the importance of toys and appropriate language. Part of my job was to teach the mothers how to teach their children to love themselves, and use praise instead of punishment.
Q: How did the mothers feel about you coming in and telling them what to do? Did they ever get annoyed?
Not at all. They wanted to see us. No parent ever turned us away or told us that what we were doing was silly. They were always ready for the next appointment and the children were always waiting for us and eager to play. Parents could see that their children were learning and that it was making a difference.
Q: What’s so important about toys?
When children play with toys, they are using their entire body and brain. I used to sit with the mothers and ask the children to stack all the red blocks, for example. Then we would pretend that the blocks were a truck or a train and make the sound of the truck or the train. The kids really enjoyed it—and it opened up their minds! We would run their fingers around a circle, for example, and that is how they learned their shapes. And we would take the circle out of the puzzle and ask them to put it back in. At first, they couldn’t, but with patience, they learned how. And after they were successful, we would praise them and clap them and tell them to clap themselves. We would also read books about animals, with photos of a donkey, or a goat, or a cow. By reading I mean we would look at the pictures and talk to the children. We would make the sounds of the animals and talk about what the animal does. Children love animals.
Q: Did it matter if the mothers were illiterate or not?
You don’t need to be able to read to help your child learn. If mothers didn’t know how to read, they could still go through the pictures in the book, talk about the animals, make the noises that the animals make and stimulate their children.
Q: Did you notice a difference every week when you went back?
The mothers and children made progress every week. The children would show us what they could do even before we taught them a new concept – put in pieces of the puzzle, push, pull or whatever concept we had taught the week before. They were also better at making sentences and expressing themselves. You could really see that the program was helping the children learn.
Q: So does it matter whether a child gets a fancy new toy or a doll made out of rags?
When the program started, a lot of people thought this idea of stimulating stunted children with homemade toys was stupid. The toys we had weren’t fancy—they were from things you would find around the home, like a plastic bag or a piece of cardboard. Sometimes, we just used stones and put them in a plastic bottle to shake as a rattle. But our toys worked just as well as the name brand toys you would buy in the store. Many children even preferred our homemade toys. And the results have proven all those people wrong in the long run.
Q: We were lucky to be with you when you met up with Patricia, who was just a toddler in the program last time you saw her, and some of the other children in the program.
When I meet the children I worked with all those years ago, I’m just elated. When we first started, it didn’t seem like they could improve. They were so sick and so behind: they had no toys and nothing to stimulate them. I’ve worked with children nearly all my life and to see a positive result with even one is a joy.
Patricia was such a sickly and small child that I didn’t even know if she would live to see the next week. Her parents were so poor and her mind and body were so behind. But her mother was dedicated to her and Patricia couldn’t have done better for herself. She went to university, got married, had a child, and has a good, well-paying job. She really took a step up in life and part of it was the interaction she got in the early stage in her life. The toys that we took to Patricia were part of her development.
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