December 6, 2016 |

Why playtime for babies is serious business

Babies thrive and develop successful life skills when their parents play with them.
Two toddlers, a little girl and a little boy, smile at each other in a waiting room.
A child’s brain develops most rapidly during the first three years of life. Photo: Conrad N. Hilton Foundation/Joop Rubens.

Updated on May 22, 2018

This week at the 71st World Health Assembly, leaders from around the world are endorsing the Nurturing Care for Early Childhood Development Framework. Emerging evidence shows that the earliest years of a child’s life are critical for human development. The Framework provides a roadmap to scale up nurturing care—comprising health, nutrition, responsive caregiving, opportunities for early learning, and safety and security—through policies and services that reach children under three and their caregivers. A commitment to the Nurturing Care Framework is a commitment to helping children survive, thrive, and develop to their full potential.

“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 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.

An assortment of colorful toys.
A box of colorful toys made from local and recycled materials. Photo: Conrad N. Hilton Foundation/Joop Rubens.

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

A close-up of a poster illustrating ways in which caregivers can help ensure their child's healthy development.
A series of posters illustrate ways in which parents can engage in play with their children. Photo: Conrad N. Hilton Foundation/Joop Rubens.

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 PATH’s broader approach of integrating nurturing care for early childhood development (ECD) into these routine health services.

“Traditional” center-based ECD approaches tend to target older children, missing 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.

Read new data supporting the importance of nurturing care in “The 2016 Lancet Early Childhood Development Series.”

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

A man sits at a table with a bowl of toys in front of him as he talks to a woman and several children.
During home visits, community health volunteers can also integrate nurturing care for early child development into healthy child consultation. Photo: Conrad N. Hilton Foundation/Joop Rubens.

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 nurturing care for ECD into the health system focuses on supporting and building the capacity of existing 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

A young girl looks forward, surrounded by women who are holding small children on their laps.
Play is big work for babies, but equally important for moms, dads, and caregivers too. Photo: Conrad N. Hilton Foundation/Joop Rubens.

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, the United States Agency for International Development, and the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

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  • Portrait of Tracy Romoser. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.
    Tracy Romoser was formerly a communications officer and the blog editor at PATH.