Play and Development for Children from Nagorno-Karabakh
UNICEF and partners have set up 11 early childhood development centres for over 130 children from Nagorno-Karabakh residing in Armenia
“Children, how many seasons do we have in a year?” asks Ms. Manya with a smile.
“Four - winter, spring, summer and autumn!” exclaim Ani, Tigran, Alyona and other children in the room.
“Good job! And do you remember your numbers? Let’s count!”
“One, two, three, four…”
For many of us, these are simple games we learned and repeated so many times at preschool; it’s the indisputable truth locked away in our minds. Yet, there are other children who struggle to catch up on these ‘simple-looking’ games, of course, if they have the opportunity to attend preschool at all. Many young children from Nagorno-Karabakh who fled to Armenia as a result of the conflict did not have the opportunity to go to preschool, as the kindergartens either work in full capacity and have a long waiting-list or work in limited capacity due to the pandemic. Amidst so many other crucial priorities and basic survival needs, it was easy for play and early childhood development to get pushed back in the list.
Maya Simonyan, UNICEF Early Childhood Programme Officer in Armenia, says the opposite:
“Eighty percent of a child's brain is formed before the age of three. Quality preschool education is the best way available to ensure children reach their potential. We know that children who attend kindergarten perform better at the later stages of their education and that they are likely to earn 25 percent more in adulthood than children who have missed out on early learning.”
"Every child should be given the opportunity to benefit from early learning, regardless of where or how they live. If that means taking preschool education to where the child lives, then that’s what we have to commit to," summed up Maya.
UNICEF has extensive experience in establishing alternative early learning services in Armenia. It is owing to this experience that when necessary funds were raised, UNICEF mobilized partners and set up 11 early childhood development centers in Dilijan, Tsakhkadzor, Sevan and Jermuk shelters, so that children from Nagorno-Karabakh do not miss out on their development.
In Tsakhkadzor, the centers are open in two hotels that have temporarily welcomed children and women from Nagorno-Karabakh. They work for three days a week and have already become a dear place for children - their ‘garten’, their room, their place.
“On the weekend, when Tigran came down and saw that the door is closed, he cried and was so sad to see that the center wasn’t working that day,” says Elina, Tigran's mother.
I asked Tigran what he likes the best about the new center. “I come here so that I can paint well, study well, play well, and listen to good tales. If I do not come here, I will be very-very sad.”
An educator at the center, Ms. Manya works at the Tsakhkadzor kindergarten as a psychologist.
“The child were very shy and not communicative at first. Being in this environment has helped them overcome the stress that they had to go through fleeing their homes. Only a few out of the ten were able to count, so we are working hard to prepare them for school, but also not forgetting about games and having fun.”
When the center was about to close, the parents came to pick up their children. “No matter how much you study at home, the growth and development that children achieve at the kindergarten is completely different. For a long time I was not able to devote due time to my own child’s development because of all of the horror we had to go through. Yesterday I noticed that he was counting with his fingers: up to five and so on up to ten. I was very happy to see that!” said Siranush, Boris's mother and added that there should be more of those lessons. “Three days a week for three hours is not enough, everyday would be better.”
Marina, Ani's mum, is a teacher and now helps the local educator at the second center at another hotel. “I make sure that we repeat everything she learns here later on. All of the parents are happy, as our children really needed this. The little ones had nothing to do at the guest house. Now they are busy reading books, painting, learning various things and socializing. This center is a very good idea; we hope that it will operate as long as we are here.”
Ms Anna is the educator at this center, while also the Director of the Tsakhkadzor kindergarten.
“As soon as children saw all of the toys and the books, they were so excited to play and paint together. We encourage their creative thinking and imagination. Whatever we learn during our session, we then try to reinforce through painting and art.”
On that day, children listened to a fairy tale about mittens and when it was over, they started painting mittens using from various items.
Besides the two hotels in Tsakhkadzor, UNICEF is working to set up transportation so that other children from Nagorno-Karabakh who are currently in Tsakhkadzor can benefit from the centers. At the second hotel, we met with Gohar Abrahamyan who has also fled the war and now lives at another guesthouse in Tsakhkadzor with her six children.
“I wish the children at our guesthouse had the same opportunity. The mothers at our guesthouse have many children, some are toddlers, and it will be hard for them to leave their children at the hotel twice a day in order to bring the littles ones here. If a similar center does not open at our place, I will need to bring my son to this one. I am a teacher myself, and I cannot allow him to be deprived of learning for such a long time,” said Gohar.
Alyona, 3, is the most active in the group. “I love this center very much because there are many toys here. I come to play with my friends Mane, Astghik, and Marie. In Nagorno-Karabakh, I miss my grandpa, my dog, our house and the yard and my toys the most.”
"But this is our kindergarten now, we have many toys here too and we are safe here."
And yes, these centers are created so that children can stay children, so that they can feel safe and secure, continue learning and not be left behind. They learn their numbers, the seasons of the year, listen to and stage fairy tales - everything so that they are better prepared for school and for their future. These centers give hope to children and to their parents that life goes on and that they have the opportunity to build a new future, one where children’s learning and their safety will not be under attack.
UNICEF continues to support children and women affected by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, providing psychosocial support, social assistance and mine risk education.