Children play into the future

The power of play

James Chavula
A child playing at the CBCC
UNICEF Malawi/2022/Elephant Media
30 June 2022

Ethel Maganga is her children's first teacher and playmate.

When her two grandchildren return from Chimbiri CBCC in Phalombe South, she never shies away from playing with them.

"Raising my six children has taught me that parenting is not what you say to children or how you say it, but what you do together with them and how you relate. The small steps most people take for granted tend to have lifelong impacts on children," she explains.

She is harnessing the power of play to stimulate physical fitness of Willie and Chimwemwe Posiwa. The pair is aged five and three, respectively

"I send them to the CBCC to play, socialise with their peers and learn the basics because every crop sprouts from a nursery, but I am their first teacher. Playing together helps us to bond, stay active and keep fit," she explains.

Her favourite playmates love playing football, see-saws and with toys. The granny 

helps them make balls from plastic waste, mold toys from clay and shape dolls from rags.

"When I am not teaching them to read, write and count, I am helping them make playthings that  stimulate their creativity and attention to detail. I want them to stay active," she explains. 

During the visit to Chimbiri CBCC, the two boys were seen playing a ball made of single-use plastic carrier bags while their age mates were skipping ropes, balancing on see-saws and climbing monkey bars.

When they went home, they asked their grandmother to play some ‘chipapa’, a sing-along game involving two players clapping each other's hands and bumping finger nodes as they chorus an accompanying tune.

"Playing at the CBCC and at home keeps the children fit as they learn basics they can use throughout their lives. It brings them closer to me as their guardian as well as their playmates. In the beginning, Chimwemwe, who was quick to anger has since toned down," Ethel states. 

The granny says her youngest grandson's  demeanor personifies the power of play to help children manage their anger as he silently withdraws when irked or provoked.

"Through play, the children sometimes mobilise each other to sing songs, recite the alphabet, chant calendar months and count as they do at the CBCC," she explains.

Scientists say the most important interaction a parent or guardian can have with a child is through play. 

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a parenting expert from Harvard University, says the early years of a child's life are so critical because the experiences young children have and the relationships with the important people in their lives shape their brain development.

"And that early foundation affects all the learning and behavior and physical and mental health that follows through a lifetime. It’s impossible to overestimate how important the early years are.”

Child-parent play is one of the components of an integrated early childhood development project the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare is implementing in Phalombe with support from KfW through UNICEF Malawi.

District Social Welfare Officer Isaac Lakudzala says playing with a child is the most important thing that any parent can do to support the development of a young child and to understand its strengths and weaknesses as well as aspirations.

"Children who play with their parents or guardians develop well physically, socially and psychologically. However, it is sad that most men seem to think it's only women's role to play with children. But we want them to understand that their responsibility goes beyond being breadwinners or buying toys for children," he explains.

Caregiver Regina Round in class with young learners
UNICEF Malawi/2022/Elephant Media
Caregiver Regina Round in class with young learners

He says the time spent at play helps trigger creativity and eagerness to learn, notwithstanding family bonding.

"Playing together is a two-way interaction that goes beyond sharing smiles. It silently creates a strong bond between a child and parents. As a result, it becomes easy for the young child not only  to explore and try things, but also freely share their fears and dreams," Lakudzala explains.

In this way, the children like Chimwemwe and Willy master the world around them, including what they see, hear, touch  or feel.

"It is vital for parents to play with children. Through play, children learn first steps in life as they interact with their parents, peers and anyone they meet at play," Lakudzala explains.

Ellen Kazembe Crusoe, nursing officer at Phalombe District Hospital, says play enhances the bonding process which begins with a man pats the pregnancy and the mothers frequently breastfeeds their babies for the first six months of life .

"Breastfeeding promotes body touch, which stimulates a sense of belonging and security as the milk produces a scent which is unique to the mother and the child feels attached to her. Men can build a similar closeness by getting involved in parenting and playing with the child," she explains.

Regina Round, a caregiver at Chimwemwe's CBCC, encourages children to play age-appropriate games using both ready-made  and locally available props.

"Children who play together know each other, understand each other, help each other and learn together while keeping fit and growing  healthy" she says.

Ethel says Chimwemwe's future looks bright.

"My youngest grandson is always active and curious to learn. The caregivers at the CBCC say he is on course to emulate the example of Jacqueline and Gift, who are always in the top 10 since they moved from Chimbiri CBCC to the nearest primary school."