November 05, 2021

Addressing the Impact of COVID-19 on Infants and Young Children

Conventional wisdom is that the health of young children is not at great risk from COVID-19, but, in the Global South, the space constraints imposed on young children by the pandemic pose a significant risk to the stimulation on which brain development thrives. Early childhood development is further jeopardized by the pandemic’s impact on caregivers.

play lab model

By Erum Mariam


This piece was originally published in Inter Press News. It has been reposted below.

A new early childhood development infrastructure has been built in Bangladesh by BRAC, the largest international development organization in the world, providing weekly one-on-one phone calls by trained specialists to the caregivers of 40,000 infants and children under the age of six. It offers educational and psychosocial support – and a model that can benefit children worldwide.

A child’s early years are crucial to brain development, and stimulation is especially important. With schools closed in Bangladesh beginning in March 2020 – and play groups thereby halted and young children largely at home – the challenge was to ensure stimulation within home environments.

The program that emerged combines playful learning for children and psychosocial support for caregivers through mobile phone communications and a multi-layered architecture of specialized training and outreach. While enhancing needed stimulation among children, this replicable program also engages and supports family members in children’s learning and raises the prospect of continuing that engagement after the pandemic.

The program is part of a much wider drive for play-based learning by BRAC. A multi-year partnership between BRAC, the LEGO Foundation, and Porticus supports an extensive play-based learning initiative. Through this initiative, BRAC has created 110 community-based Play Labs in Bangladesh, Uganda, and Tanzania. Another 400 Play Labs have also been created within government primary schools in Bangladesh (with 300 of them supported by Porticus and 100 by the LEGO Foundation). BRAC has further trained 315 adolescent girls and young women to act as facilitators or Play Leaders in the community-based Play Labs. The Play Labs are safe spaces where children can engage in play, supported by a play-based curriculum that is culturally sensitive and designed to suit the local contexts, while also promoting children’s cognitive, language, physical, and social-emotional development.

Both the play spaces and curriculum are designed by BRAC Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University (BRAC IED). Within a few months of the Rohingya influx in 2017, BRAC IED as part of BRAC started developing and implementing the Humanitarian Play Lab model within Child Friendly Spaces. The Humanitarian Play Lab is an adaptation of BRAC IED’s award-winning Play Lab model, adapted to the humanitarian context of the Rohingya camps, where play is used as a tool for healing from trauma as well as for learning. Since December 2018, the model has continued to run for Rohingya infants and children under the age of six as part of the Play to Learn project, in partnership with Sesame Workshop, International Rescue Committee, and New York University, with funding from the LEGO Foundation.

For children in displaced communities, the COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis on top of a crisis. It is vital to provide these children – and their caregivers – with improved access to learning, psychosocial support, safe spaces, and playful early learning and stimulation opportunities to help address trauma, support healthy development, and provide a sense of routine and normalcy. Play helps children better manage trauma, especially when they have experienced crisis, violence, and poverty.

When schools closed due to the pandemic, children no longer had access to the safe spaces provided by the Play Labs and Humanitarian Play Labs. BRAC felt the need to stay connected to children and their families, so Play Leaders and other frontline staff started using mobile phones to maintain regular contact with program participants. That initial instinct led to the creation of the telecommunication model called Pashe Achhi (English translation: Beside You), a remote learning mechanism that not only provides learning opportunities for children and psychosocial support for caregivers but also serves as a new emergency infrastructure for early childhood development.

Experts at BRAC IED brought together psychologists and play-based curriculum developers to develop 20-minute tele-conversational scripts, with a component for psychosocial support and another component on play-based learning. BRAC trained 1,300 Play Leaders on the effective delivery of scripts. The Play Leaders now facilitate weekly 20-minute one-on-one calls with caregivers and children from both Play Lab and Humanitarian Play Lab families. An initial pilot of a five-to-seven-minute conversation proved to be inadequate, and the 20-minute design now in use allows for meaningful engagement with both caregiver and child. The call scripts emphasize active listening as well as practicing empathy to ensure that callers can listen and address parents’ feelings and suggest play-based stimulation strategies to engage with the children within the home environment.

In calling the caregivers of infants and children under the age of two in the Rohingya camps, Play Leaders provide basic psychosocial support plus tips on how to take care of infants and stay safe from COVID-19. For children ages two to six in the Rohingya camps, Play Leaders speak with the children and mothers or caregivers. For children ages four to five across Bangladesh, Play Leaders engage remotely with children through activities such as reciting Bangla rhymes, while giving the adults basic psychosocial support, tips on engaging with the children, and health and hygiene messages.

BRAC has begun to expand the Pashe Achhi project to target infants and children under the age of five and their families from vulnerable backgrounds across Bangladesh. These families often lack access to basic early childhood development services, and BRAC sees great potential in Pashe Achhi to promote optimal children’s development and help break the cycle of poverty.

In total, outreach to caregivers of 40,000 children now takes place weekly, providing support for both the children and the adults. The fact that such scale was reached within weeks underscores the need and the replicability. Data has been collected throughout, and research is underway to assess the impact quantitatively and qualitatively, but anecdotal evidence makes clear the extraordinary value of this intervention. Its impact includes enhancing children’s stimulation in every household; addressing the well-being of children and adults; engaging children and their families in early childhood education; increasing educators’ connections with the children’s households; and addressing pedagogical and social-emotional needs, while also providing capacity building for front-liners and addressing their well-being.

Some of the lessons that implementation has already revealed are especially illuminating: First, play is key. It provides a profound educational vehicle and an easy way to engage households in ways that can potentially continue throughout a child’s education. Second, engagement can enhance both learning and psychosocial support. A child’s learning is greatly affected by the relationship with caregivers, hence Pashe Achhi places great emphasis on developing the caregiver-child bond. Third, the content must be kept simple to enable scaling.

The model depends on empathetic and educational conversations, the impact of which must be maximized to reach enough people. Fourth, the pervasiveness of technology is far more important than whether it is state-of-the-art. In this case, a cutting-edge initiative was developed with basic mobile phones.

The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated innovation in the education of young children. Extending that innovation could benefit children broadly long after the pandemic has subsided.

By Erum Mariam the Executive Director of the BRAC Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University in Bangladesh.