Healthy habits through play for a happier childhood

Two rooms of a shabby house and a little courtyard is the kingdom of play for Nadira’s five children.

Jelena Terzic
Older sister Andjelina (12) and brother Arijan (14) read to their younger sisters Anastasija (7) and Elmedina (5)
UNICEF Serbia/2018/Pancic

09 October 2018

Five-year-old Elmedina is the youngest of five children in the Tairovski Roma family.

When she makes a quick wave of her little arms, just like the sorceress from her favourite fairy tale, her older brothers and sisters freeze instantly. Their Mom, Nadira joins them, with movements mimicking those of the Snow Queen. 

“My sister Anastasija and I are fairies”, Elmedina explains the joyful scene through children's play.

The oldest sister Andjelina (12) is the one who usually reads fairy tales to Elmedina and Anastasija, who has just started school.

Then they cast the roles of princes and princesses between them and their older brothers Arijan (14) and Erdjan (10). Their mother stimulates them to play.

At workshops organized for her and her relatives, friends and neighbours by activists from the “Roma Women's Centre – Bibija”, with the support from UNICEF and the City Public Health Institute of Belgrade, Nadira learned that the easiest way for children to pick up healthy habits is through play.

At the workshops, they talk about health, education and how to exercise their rights.

“This is where we’ve learned how important hygiene is for health”, says Nadira.

That is why every day starts with the unavoidable morning hygiene routine in the modest Tairovski’s house in an unhygienic settlement.

The five children are over a small courtyard tap, washing their faces and their hands, and brushing their teeth.

Elmedina is getting ready to brighten her smile in front of the “magic mirror”.

She is patiently waiting for her Mom to put toothpaste on her toothbrush, and the fun begins. She makes rapid up-and-down movements, just like she’s learned at the workshops she attends with her mother.

“The routine every morning -  Water, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste! ‘Mom, I don’t want to wear this, I want that, braid my hair, give me my backpack'", the mother of three girls and two boys describes with a smile the start of the weekdays.

“Children pick their own clothes. They want to wear something clean and modern, so as not to stand out from their peers. Then they go to the nearby primary school ‘Jovan Cvijic’,” Nadira says. 

“After I walk my older children to school, I stay in the park with Elmedina whenever the weather is nice. She enjoys to play on the swing and slide the most”, says Nadira.

She explains that they live far away from the kindergarten, but that they are planning to enrol in preschool education next year.

The oldest brother Arijan says that Elmedina has the prettiest smile in the family. This is probably because she has her favourite dentist.

“She has blue eyes and long eyelashes and calls me ‘my little kitten’”, the five-year-old describes her dentist with enthusiasm, while proudly stretching a smile.

Elmedina (5) - the brightest smile of the Tairovski family
UNICEF Serbia/2018/Pancic
Elmedina (5) - the brightest smile of the Tairovski family

The Tairovski is a family of beautiful smiles. Thanks to the efforts of their dedicated mother, they get their dental care at the Faculty of Dental Medicine Clinic.

“University students have practical classes on Tuesdays, starting from October. I take my children on these days for free check-ups and dental treatment, if some of them need it, because I know how important it is for them to have healthy teeth”, says Nadira.

Svetlana Ilic, an activist from the “Roma Women’s Centre – Bibija”, says that mothers and children are taught at workshops to see their dentists as their friends, and that there is no reason to be afraid of them.

“Together with images of bad teeth, we show them the food they should avoid what to eat to have a nice smile. At the end of the workshop, when asked what was important for healthy teeth apart from hygiene and diet, all children would answer in one voice ‘going to the tooth doctor’”, explains Svetlana.   

“University students have practical classes on Tuesdays, starting from October. I take my children on these days for free check-ups and dental treatment, if some of them need it, because I know how important it is for them to have healthy teeth.”

Nadira tries to prepare varied meals for her children, with plenty of fruits and vegetables.

“Every child wants to drink Coke and eat potato chips and chocolate. But I tell them ‘don't, it’s not healthy. Just wait and your mom will now make something for you, green peas for example’. Elmedina doesn’t really like green peas. But then I tell her the Princess and the Pea story which she finds interesting, and then she eats up the peas”, says Nadira.

During the workshops, organized twice a week in the homes of the Roma women from the settlement, there are always apples on the tables.

In the past 18 months, they have been led by the members of the mobile teams for support to Roma families. The teams consist of a pedagogical assistant, a health mediator, a visiting nurse and representatives of the local authority and the Centre for Social Work. 

“We talk about the importance of following the immunization schedule from the child’s birth. This was a key topic when there was a threat of a measles epidemic”, says Roma Health Mediator Lepa Nedeljkovic, and confirms that all Nadira’s children have been vaccinated on time.

Dental hygiene in the Tairovski family home, with the help from health mediator Lepa Nedeljkovic
UNICEF Serbia/2018/Pancic
Dental hygiene in the Tairovski family home, with the help from health mediator Lepa Nedeljkovic

A year and a half ago, Nadira started attending workshops focused on early childhood development.

Her experiences from pregnancy, childbirth and new-born care were fresh back then and, with the assistance of the visiting nurse and health mediator, she was sharing them with younger mothers.  

“Nadira always first adopts the issues we want to talk about and then explains them to other women in simple terms. This means a lot both to us and to them. She is not only nurturing her children with care, but she herself regularly goes to gynaecological check-ups, mammography, etc.”, explains Svetlana Ilic during a break in her conversation with seven-year-old Anastasija.

The girl is telling her about her best friend from the class, Teodora, and showing her the letters she has learned at school. 

Two rooms of a shabby house and a little courtyard is the kingdom of play for Nadira’s five children.

When the kids are in the house, their mother is at peace. Her worries start at the courtyard gate because of the busy street and the garbage dump outside.

“I am more afraid of rats than of trucks. I hope they will remove this garbage, because we are afraid of catching diseases”, says Nadira.

She relies on the promise of mobile team members that there would be another round of waste removal soon.  

Health Mediator Lepa Nedeljkovic says that she has an individually tailored approach for each family and the family members, in accordance with their needs.

"We visit pregnant women and monitor their needs. Then we visit mothers with babies, ensuring that they receive proper care and go for regular check-ups. In some families, we encounter violence, and for such cases the Centre for Social Work plays a very important role. For elderly people, we schedule medical check-ups and bring them medicines. We make sure everyone has their personal documents”, Ms Nedeljkovic says, explaining the role of the Health Mediators.

UNICEF’s project “ALL FOR CHILDREN: mobilizing the community to support early childhood development of Roma children” is implemented thanks to the financial support by the company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which is committed to improving the health of Roma children in Serbia and the Region through the “Together for Better Health” initiative.