Golden years: early learning and development
How UNICEF Philippines and Starbucks are improving children’s early learning and development
Nida Relagio, 66, teaches pre-school children at Little Angel Day Care Centre in Barangay San Roque, Camarines Norte. She’s been doing it for twenty years, before which she was a high school teacher, a member of the local barangay council and a nutrition scholar. Nida earns 1,100 pesos (US$24) per month, topped up with another 1,200 ($26) from the barangay.
“I’m proud of my work because the children do well at school. They’re only three but they know simple words and can write and draw,” she says, holding up an illustrated book by one of her students, three-year-old Timmy Anne. “They also learn self confidence at the day care centre – in the beginning they are shy and don’t want to talk and play.”
As well as teaching the children, Nida meets their parents every month to discuss any problems they’re having. “We talk about things like the parent’s income and the children’s healthcare,” she explains. “The children often get coughs, fever and flu. We work to improve their health and get them to a normal weight. I tell the mothers that they must give their children healthy, nutritious food. We’re very close so I can make home visits too.”
The first stage of a child’s life, from 0 to 3 years, plays a crucial role in determining their chances in later life. At this age, children benefit enormously from positive interaction with adults and other children. Through good quality care, their cognitive, linguistic, emotional and social development can all be enhanced. Furthermore, early childhood education and care offers an opportunity to lessen the effects of poverty.
However, there is an equal potential for harm if this vital stage is neglected. A lack of social interaction and care can hinder children’s development, leading to long-term problems such as an inability to concentrate, withdrawal and poor academic performance.
“Early childhood care and development is a priority concern for UNICEF and the Philippines Government,” Fe Nogra Abog, Early Learning Advisor at UNICEF Philippines comments. “The first six years of life is the most crucial stage in a person’s life. What happens in this period influences the way children grow and develop.
“Yet many Filipino young children miss out on the opportunity to develop to their full potential,” she continues. “Despite national legislation in 2000 supporting early childhood care and development, access to early learning remains low at 34 per cent. This leaves two thirds of children between the ages of three and five unable to attend any form of early learning.”
Barriers to learning
There are other factors that can hinder children’s development. The primary school dropout rate is highest in the early grades, partly because children are poorly prepared for school. “Starting school requires children to negotiate many changes – in their identity, relationships, environment and behavior,” Fe explains. “If the move to school doesn’t go well, then their engagement and attendance can be compromised.”
The situation is even worse in remote and conflict-affected areas, where access to early learning is lower than the national average. “Reaching these children requires intensive, sustained and culturally-sensitive interventions, which can be expensive,” Fe says. “Because of the difficulties, children in these areas are often forgotten.”
For these reasons, UNICEF is supporting the Philippines Government to expand access to early learning through a combination of day care centers and home-based services. This is a change of strategy for the Government, which in the past focused solely on formal centers. “We are working with barangay councils to pilot alternative ways of reaching marginalized children, especially in densely-populated, poor urban communities, in remote rural areas and in disaster and conflict-affected areas,” Fe says.
To help get to the hardest to reach children, UNICEF is using new, innovative methods such as supervised neighborhood playgroups and mobile learning centers. “The mobile centers range from a van converted into a mini library, which is driven round several communities, to a project in Maguindanao, where an early learning worker takes materials by horseback to remote and mountainous areas,” Fe comments.
Whatever the nature of the early learning setting, UNICEF’s support focuses on training, supplies and infrastructure. The organization provides training for day care workers and pre-school teachers, along with early learning packages containing educational toys, storybooks, learning and teaching materials, musical instruments, feeding utensils and hygiene kits. It also provides furniture and playground equipment, repairs run-down buildings in poor communities and builds day care centers in disaster-affected areas.
Working with partners
However, UNICEF’s funds are limited. One way in which the organization is able to reach more children is through its corporate partnerships. In 2004, UNICEF and Starbucks launched SparkHope, a program that allows each Starbucks store in the Philippines to adopt a barangay and provide early childhood care and development for children under six years old in that area.
A SparkHope corner can be found in every Starbucks store. A display shows photos of the adopted barangay and information on UNICEF’s work. Customers can make a donation directly to the project via a collection box and, in previous years, a portion of the proceeds from Starbucks’ year planner promotion have gone to the SparkHope program.
“It’s a win/win situation for both [partners,” Reggie Olalia, former Corporate Fundraising Officer at UNICEF Philippines, comments. “By working with companies like Starbucks, we are able to promote UNICEF’s work to a wider audience and raise more money than we could do on our own. It also benefits the company because it helps with their corporate social responsibility and public image.
“Corporate fundraising currently accounts for 30 per cent of all the money we raise directly in the Philippines, so it’s a really big market for us,” Reggie adds.
Since launch, Sparkhope has assisted a total of 26 communities from nine provinces and one city, reaching almost 3,000 children. This includes Little Angel Day Care Centre, where Sparkhope has paid for the building, equipment and educational supplies. UNICEF is also training the day care workers, including Nida, and providing them with UNICEF t-shirts to use as uniforms.
Ramil Apolinarjo has been a councilor at Barangay San Roque for eight years. He says the Sparkhope project has helped the council move towards its goal of universal pre-school education. “Parents currently pay 50 peso a month to send their children to day care centers,” he comments. “It’s very little but some families still can’t afford it, so we want to make it free. We also want to improve the buildings and increase pay for daycare workers.
“We now have five day care centers in this barangay,” Ramil continues. “Ultimately, we want all children in the area to attend. We’re doing outreach work with local parents to explain the importance of early learning.”
As for Nida, she has no plans to stop working at the day care centre. “I’d get bored if I retired and I’d miss the children,” she says. “All my own children are grown up now.” Some of her original pupils are now parents themselves. Many have graduated from high school and college and are working in local schools, factories and the fishing industry. “They still call me Mum,” Nida says with a smile.
UNICEF’s work, both in the Philippines and internationally, is based on upholding children’s rights, including the right to an education. Through projects like Sparkhope, UNICEF and Starbucks are giving more children the chance to learn and develop to their full potential.