“Hello, hello!” Raquel Vasco smiles and greets parents and their babies as they enter the clinic for vaccinations and weighing. “I want to welcome you to the ‘play box.’”
Raquel is a preventive medicine technician at Beluluane Health Centre in Boane District, Mozambique. She spends quite a bit of her daily routine around the serious business of play. The play box is a PATH-led pilot innovation where health service providers like Raquel use playthings made from locally available materials to make health facility areas and lengthy wait times more child-friendly. During play box sessions, health service providers also counsel parents on ways to talk and play with their children.
Play is big work for babies, and in the first three years of their lives vitally important to their development. Research has shown that when parents and caregivers play and talk with their children in these early years, children grow up to be healthier, more educated adults who actually earn more than their counterparts.
In short: these children are empowered to live to their fullest.
Adding play to routine health services
In many low-resource settings, interventions such as screening for developmental delays and counseling parents on how to play and talk with their children, are not part of routine and universal maternal and child health services. The play box is part of a larger PATH early childhood development (ECD) initiative that is integrated into these routine services.
“Traditional” center-based ECD approaches tend to target older children, missing (or altogether avoiding) the critical window of opportunity during the early years when the brain develops most rapidly and developmental delays may be reversed.
PATH is working to address this critical gap through efforts recently validated in a series in The Lancet that strongly recommends targeting ECD services to the youngest children.
Service providers like Raquel also provide an added sense of empowerment to parents and caregivers: the knowledge that they can play a role in their own baby’s physical, cognitive, and social well-being.
An enhanced sense of childcare
As countries around the world see child mortality rates decrease, thanks to greater access to lifesaving interventions, there is an increased focus to ensure children not only survive, but also thrive, and reach their full developmental potential in life.
PATH’s approach to integrating ECD into the health system focuses on supporting and building the capacity of existing health service providers and their supervisors. We work to put the government in the driver’s seat in planning, training, and mentoring processes that favor both scale and sustainability.
Vasco is just one of many health facility– and community-based service providers being trained and mentored by PATH staff in Mozambique, South Africa, and Kenya.
Advocating for all babies
In order to ensure long-term sustainability and reinforce government ownership, it is important to reinforce and integrate ECD content into government strategies and plans, training curricula, and health service delivery guidelines and tools.
For instance, in Kenya, PATH supported the establishment of a national ECD taskforce within the Ministry of Health, adapting and developing a package to support health service providers so that they can better deliver these services to children 0 to 3 years old. PATH is also supporting integration of ECD content into child health policies and guidelines currently up for review.
Great things are happening in Mozambique too, where we have been successful in integrating ECD data collection into provincial health registers in Maputo Province, helping to make these services a standard and prioritized aspect of routine care. PATH is also working with the Mozambique government to validate and standardize a visual tool to screen for development delays as part of routine sick child care.
With PATH’s support, the governments of Kenya and Mozambique are making ECD services an important element of basic health care for caregivers and their young children. In turn, a new generation of children are given the greatest chance at becoming productive and fulfilled members of society.
PATH’s integrated early childcare development programs are made possible through funding from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, BHP Billiton Sustainable Communities, the United States Agency for International Development, and the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.