Playful parenting in Zambia amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

How work to support parents in Zambia has helped over a difficult year.

Tiwine Muchipa
Mother and father hold newborn baby in Zambia
01 June 2021

Mr Peter and Mrs Faustina Phiri are proud Zambian parents to four lovely girls with Carol being the newest addition to the family.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic, this has not been an easy year to raise children in their village of Kholowa in Zambia’s Katete District in Eastern Province.

“As a father and husband, it is my responsibility to ensure the well-being of my family,” says Peter. “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it lots of challenges with strict restrictions, and the selling of my farm grown produce has become slow.”

The COVID-19 crisis has posed multiple stressors on parents and caregivers, which can negatively impact parents’ and caregivers’ mental health and well-being, affecting their ability to engage in responsive and playful interactions with their young children, which are so important for building strong emotional bonds and healthy brains.

Regular parenting sessions at Insaka (Early Childhood Development - ECD) hubs, supported by UNICEF and the LEGO Foundation, were effectively adapted during the pandemic, and continued to be offered, away from the physical Insaka hubs, through a network of volunteers visiting communities. Insakas are community based ECD centres which provide integrated early childhood services, including parenting support/counselling sessions that promote playful parenting and responsive care.

“I am a proud mother to four beautiful girls with the fourth having been born a few days ago,” said mum Faustina. “I have learnt a lot from the Insaka hub on playful parenting, the importance of using age appropriate toys, child nutrition and good feeding practices, responsive caregiving and how to know when a child is unwell.”

Family with two children and a baby at their doorway

As the mother of a newborn, one of the key lessons that has stayed with her from those sessions is to start playful interactions early with her child, even when in the first few weeks they are just watching things around them.

“Before we participated in playful parenting sessions, most of the children would be at observer stage (where a child is less interactive to the happenings around them) for longer than it should be because we as parents were too busy with other things,” says Faustina. “Taking time to play with the children seemed to be time wasting.”

“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, after all household chores and farming activities were done, I would participate in playful parenting sessions at the Mphala [hub] with other caregivers and parents from the community,” she says. “The sessions proved to be helpful so far as children that have been born after the lessons are more active and stronger.”

The community-based Insaka approach focuses on the establishment of community based ECD centres – Insakas - which are parenting hubs for nurturing care at the community level. The hubs also act as platforms for integrated community development, including promoting good nutrition, learning through play and adult literacy.

“The Insaka hub provides playful parenting sessions for different age groups. As parents we are taught how to make toys and play instruments using local materials that are fun and age appropriate,” says Faustina. During the early months of the child's growth, play activities are focused on the development of senses such as sight, hearing and feeling.

“At the hub we were not only taught how to play with children, we also were taught on child nutrition and its benefits. Understanding how to feed children different foods that make up a proper balanced diet,” says Faustina. “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic we stopped meeting at the hub, we stay home and relay on the past knowledge obtained from the sessions we had before the pandemic.”

Peter Phiri also used to attend sessions at the hub. “Having attended a couple of parenting sessions with my wife at the hub gave us lots of insights and parenting and an understanding of why children behave as they do and also knowledge on age appropriate games,” he says.

Parenting during the pandemic has been critical. Regardless of the challenges faced during the pandemic, one positive is that the family gets to spend more time together than before. And Peter Phiri has taken advantage of the extra time to find local materials to make toy instruments for his daughters to play with, and he assists his wife more with some of the home chores.

Masked volunteer holds up flipbook to show mother

With COVID-19 restrictions limiting meetings, community-based outreach supported through UNICEF by the LEGO Foundation has become even more important for encouraging playful interaction in the early years.

“Our Community Based Volunteers [CBVs] play a very critical role in ensuring that we do not forget what was taught and also that we practice the lessons correctly,” says Faustina. “Once each month, I am notified about the CBVs’ visit so that I am home on the set day.”

Mrs Beatrice Banda is one of the trained Community Based Volunteers at the Kholowa hub in charge of ten households in the village. “I have a scheduled calendar and make it priority to visit each household once a month. The house visits have proved to be very effective for continuous parental and caregiver guidance on playful parenting,” she says. “Bearing in mind the COVID-19 guidelines, I ensure that all health guidelines are observed during each visit.”

“As a volunteer it brings me joy to see the great impact that the lessons have played in child growth and development in my community.”

Since the inception of the Insaka Playful parenting hub in Katete, a total number of 585 Community Based Volunteers have been trained who have reached out to a total number of 10,052 parents and caregivers with playful parenting, sanitation and child nutrition lessons.

By Tiwine Muchipa – Communications and Youth Engagement Associate, UNICEF Zambia