Learning and growing through play
UNICEF’s Magic Box of books, toys and learning materials is helping young children from poor families learn at home
“I love playing,” says Tae with a big smile on his face as he assembles the pieces of a puzzle. The hot weather does not bother the young boy, who is focused on the task at hand.
A few minutes of trial and error later, Tae shows off a completed puzzle depicting colourful wildlife. Although he has yet to learn the name of every animal in the puzzle, he recites their colours in his native Mon language with ease.
“There were mostly lessons where we would learn by heart,” says Tae, recalling attending school in Myanmar before moving to a makeshift village in Samut Sakhon Province with his parents. He spends his days with his cousin at his aunt’s home next door when his parents go to work. He talks shyly in the Mon language while a volunteer from the non-governmental organisation Proud Association translates.
His aunt, Kon Bow, can’t help but laugh at her nephew’s sincerity and says that the boy never liked going to school when they lived in Myanmar. “He could often be found at the nearby pond fishing or in the field playing with his neighbours rather than at school,” she recounts.
Kon Bow, 39, admits Tae did not have the opportunity to go back to school since his family’s move to Thailand and has fallen behind his peers. Instead, he entertains himself with what he can find in the Tambon Lak Song settlement in the Ban Paew district of Samut Sakhon Province, some 70 kilometres south of Bangkok.
The makeshift village where Tae and his relatives live comprises a few dozen houses on stilts with thatched walls and roofs and a bamboo floor. None of the houses are bigger than 20 square metres, allowing families to take apart and move their homes for a new job when needed. The most precious items found in homes are fans and old motorcycles for commuting. In such sparse living conditions, it’s no surprise to see children like Kon Bow’s 4-year-old son glued to a game on his mother’s mobile phone while trying to nap.
Too many children like Tae remain left behind with no opportunities to receive formal education because of their parents’ job instability and frequent relocation. The COVID-19 pandemic has also pushed many more children from poor households to suffer the same plight. They are stuck at home, often under the care of grandparents who lack resources to support their learning and development. The result is that the vital physical, intellectual, social and emotional development of an increasing number of children from disadvantaged families is being severely delayed.
“He has been playing with these toys and games more and more often,” says Kon Bow, pointing to the Magic Box. Tae and his cousin each received one from UNICEF in mid-March during lockdown in Samut Sakhon Province. Kon Bow believes that reading these books and playing with these toys with the children twice a day for half an hour can help the young boys continue their learning and development while at home.
Each Magic Box contains books, toys and learning materials as well as guidelines for parents on keeping young children engaged in learning activities at home. These were distributed to children under the age of 6 in Thai and migrant communities in areas of Samut Sakhon Province severely affected by COVID-19 during the second wave of the pandemic.
The spread of COVID-19 in Samut Sakhon Province in December 2020 originated in its central shrimp market and had an immediate effect on some 4,000 Thai and migrant workers living and working at the market, as Pakpoom Sawangkhum, President of Proud Association, explained.
The outbreak did not only put many out of jobs and bring local trade to a halt for a second time, but also resulted in the closure of many schools and early childhood development centres – which children of low-income workers heavily rely on for learning and nutrition.
“Toys and books [in the Magic Box] are new to many [migrant] parents as many could not afford them for their children,” says Pakpoom.
The first six years of life are the most important for a child’s growth and lifelong learning as their brains develop most rapidly during this time. Any disruptions in play, learning and stimulation during this period will negatively impact a child’s development, says Kyungsun Kim, UNICEF Representative for Thailand.
Prolonged school closure has affected children’s ability to learn and poses long-term consequences for children’s well-being, especially for young children from the most excluded and vulnerable groups.
“That’s why we came up with the idea of the Magic Box to help parents who lack resources. It helps them play and read with their young children at home so that children continue to learn and develop during this crucial period of life,” said Kim.
Thirty-seven-year-old Khin Mar Oo, also Mon from Myanmar, now lives in a village just across the road from Kon Bow. Her family’s living conditions and difficulties are not so different.
The parents of a 6-year-old girl and 1-year-old boy, Khin Mar Oo and her husband have been living and working on farms in the central region of Thailand for almost a decade. COVID-19 has reduced the family’s income to 400 baht a day, earned from the father’s work in local orchards.
The parents’ hopes to send their children home to live with their grandparents in Myanmar were dashed by the pandemic, leaving them to raise them on their own with limited resources and an unstable income. Combined with the parents’ lack of education, with only Khin Mar Oo studying up to Grade 2 in Myanmar, it is hard to find ways to keep their children learning and developing at home.
“She had no toys or drawing books before. A stuffed doll is all she had,” says Khin Mar Oo of her daughter, Mi Dong Tho, who is now inseparable from her new toys and books from her Magic Box set.
Mi Dong Tho will begin attending the Chet Riu Child Learning Centre next semester, and her mother hopes that these learning materials will help her catch up in her development despite a late start.
“I hope the building blocks will help her learn all the colours and shapes and improve her creativity,” said Khin Mar Oo on how the Magic Box can help build a better future for her daughter.