Supporting our youngest children in the time of COVID

In the ‘new normal’ of COVID-19, parents become the frontline responders

Ivelina Borisova, Regional Adviser, Early Childhood Development, UNICEF Europe & Central Asia
Learning at home
15 June 2020

Playing with a favorite toy in the classroom.  Perfecting those hopscotch skills in the playground.  Connecting with a friend, eye-to-eye.  We treasure these and other memories from our own childhood – those early years when the most important development and learning happen.  Young brains develop rapidly, absorbing everything the world offers like a sponge.  It’s a time when interactions with peers, attentive caregivers, and educators literally set the foundations for a lifetime of development and health.

For the youngest children in the Europe and Central Asia Region, growing up in the time of COVID-19, the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have made the children and their families especially vulnerable.  The pandemic response shuttered kindergartens, pre-schools and daycare centres, turning the everyday lives of millions of children and their caregivers upside down.  Access to basic services has been disrupted, in a context where support for young children is often provided on the margins of formal systems.

For the Region’s 40 million children, aged 0 to 5, the effects are and will be profound.

In the ‘new normal’ of COVID-19, parents become the frontline responders

The pressure parents, in particular, has been immense.  The unprecedented nature of the pandemic made parents, quite literally, first-line responders responsible for their children’s learning, health, well-being and care, often without the support and services that may otherwise have been available.  The disconnection of social support networks and childcare support, often provided by grandparents or other relatives, has exacerbated the situation.  For parents, the focus has not only the health, learning and wellbeing of their children, but also on their own wellbeing and capacity to manage the crisis of care and learning at home.

The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to engage closely with families and to push forward key policy reforms in the area of early childhood care and development across the Region.

From challenge to opportunity?

While the crisis on the one hand threatens the wellbeing of a generation of young children, on the other, it provides a unique opportunity to engage closely with families on all issues related to positive parenting and nurturing care.  It also creates a chance to spotlight the importance of closing the equity and quality gaps in early childhood care and education services, through much needed national policy reforms and plans.

Far too often, early childhood development falls through the cracks in an emergency response.  UNICEF is taking key steps to work with governments across the Region to protect the developmental potential of the youngest children, within the COVID19 response, and to minimize the loss of human capital in the longer term.

Accelerating the outreach and support available to families and primary caregivers

Now more than ever, parents need support to safeguard their children’s development.  Parents need simple tips, clear guidance, and practical materials they can put into action to provide their children with care and support for learning.  These include ideas for activities and games to undertake with different aged children, that require little to no materials; examples of routines that can support children when they are at home; and resources that can help parents to explain the situation to their youngest children, without causing further anxieties.

Between the months of March and May this year, all UNICEF Country Offices in the Europe and Central Asia Region rolled out national versions of the #LearningAtHome (#FunAtHome #StayAtHome) social media activation campaign.  The campaign aimed to provide parents with concrete examples and suggestions of fun and pedagogical activities that can be done at home to make sure that children were playing, learning and feeling calm and secure.  The campaign also sought to relieve stress and reduce the risks associated with forced isolation through digital connections and shared experiences.  The response and uptake by parents and caregivers spoke to a demand for such initiatives.


Expanding and re-purposing health and education platforms to deliver better for children through distance and digital services

With face-to-face healthcare and early childhood education services constrained for the time being, the development of on-line digital platforms and other ways to guide and counsel parents of young children becomes all the more important.  There are numerous good examples of this happening in the Region:  In Serbia, UNICEF is supporting the development of an online platform for home visitors to support them with resources and guidance for telehealth services.  In Montenegro, UNICEF and partners continue to provide parenting programmes through digital technologies to reach the most vulnerable parents, including those in the Roma communities.

Working with the Ministry of Education and preschool teachers, UNICEF is also helping to develop relevant content for young children for a range of media including TV, internet and mobile phone technology.  In North Macedonia and Kosovo, UNICEF is prioritizing the continuation of early learning through digital platforms, making learning resources, and activities available to families and preschoolers.


Planning ahead and re-building more resilient ECEC and health systems, leveraging lessons learned and expanding promising innovations developed during COVID

The cadence and impact of COVID-19 will be different from one country to the next.  What is clear, however, is that as we look to the “post-lockdown” horizon, when daycare centres, preschools and kindergartens start to reopen their doors, we have a chance to develop more resilient and equitable systems of supporting the youngest children and their families in the Region.  Leveraging everything we are learning from the current “pause,” we should revisit national ECEC plans and policies, strengthen the focus on equity and inclusion, and formulate more effective and innovative multi-sectoral strategies and approaches, building on the power of technology and innovations deployed during the crisis.

As we mobilize governments, donors and partners to respond to the crisis and plan for recovery, the needs of young children must be front and centre.  When national economic budgets are revisited, we can ill afford to under-invest in early childhood.  We have a chance to correct the trend and support governments to make smart investment decisions that support young children now, and strengthen the countries’ human capital and economic recovery.

It’s a chance… not to return to “the old normal” but to reimagine and build a new one. We must seize the opportunity.

Highlights from ECA’s #LearningAtHome (#FunAtHome #StayAtHome) campaign