Did you know that a child's brain reaches 80% of the adult size between zero and three years of age? Or that 75% of the food that babies eat goes directly to the development of their brain?
Stimulation in early childhood is essential for children to develop their full potential. Language, ability to solve problems, motor and soft skills are areas whose foundations are established in the first years of life. That is why the experiences of our children in that period are determining factors in their future and impact their quality of life, work situation and interpersonal relationships. But above all, promoting child development in the first years equals the balance in the countries of the region that have high rates of inequality: if the most vulnerable children receive stimuli that encourage their development, it is very likely that the gap in opportunities will be reduced.
Let's see the case of Jamaica. Between 1986 and 1989, community health agents visited the homes of nearly 65 undernourished children between 9 and 24 months of age in Kingston, the island's capital, as part of Reach Up. During these visits, the workers taught mothers how to stimulate, play and promote the development of their children through replicable games and dynamics, free and easy to do. For example, they taught them to make homemade toys, songs to encourage language development and illustrations to differentiate colors, textures and shadows.
The results were amazing. Twenty-two years later, the Nobel Prize for Economics, James Heckman, followed the children who participated in the program: the difference between them and a control group that did not participate was equal to the differences between a child of three and another of four years and a half. The group that was stimulated had wages 25% higher and had a more advanced IQ than the control group. Similar experiences have been replicated in Colombia, Brazil and Peru with promising results.
"Children who have not been exposed to quality interactions during their first years arrive at primary school will delay their development, and start at a complete disadvantage with respect to children who experienced higher quality environments in their homes or care centers," says Caridad Araújo, chief economist of the Health and Social Protection Division at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
A pioneering project: from waiting rooms to learning rooms
In Latin America, a large number of children cannot achieve full child development. While nutrition and access to prolonged breastfeeding are paramount, sois the development of cognitive and soft skills, social interaction, and psychosocial stimulation. In the region, the dividing line between one and the other is associated with the average family income: the most privileged and wealthy have greater possibilities of growing up in a home that promotes their development, and of facing the cognitive and social challenges better, than those from lower income.
Faced with this reality, we wondered what would happen if we transformed the pediatric waiting rooms into learning places. From the IDB, together with the University of the West Indies and the ministries of Health of three Caribbean countries - Jamaica, Saint Lucia and Antigua - we wanted to respond to that need and execute a unique project in the region. The objective? Expand places of early stimulation, educate parents, and support the intellectual development of children beyond the home or child care centers.
The idea behind the project that the IDB carried out in the Caribbean seeks to break this gap. Pediatric waiting rooms, especially in public health systems, allow vulnerable populations to be included who do not have access to care, education or quality stimulation spaces for their children.
In these three countries we launched a program where groups of mothers, together with their babies between 3 and 18 months, were part of group interventions in pediatric waiting rooms before entering the consultation with the doctor on duty. In 29 health centers of the three countries, 501 pairs of mothers and children were exposed to five interventions that included: nine modules with short films that talked about how to stimulate the cognitive, creative and social development of a child at home; a subsequent activity demonstration session and an invitation to continue doing what you have learned at home.
The results were successful in the short term. "I was not used to playing with her before. We just gave her toys and she would sit and play with them. After the program, I sit with her, sing with her and play with her," says one of the project's moms in Jamaica. The children who were part of the group in the health centers had four points more in measurements of cognitive abilities than those who were not part, reinforcing the results of the previous study that took place in the 80s.
"The good news is that, in the short-term evaluation, children showed significant benefits in their cognitive development, while their mothers presented improvements in the knowledge of child development and parenting patterns," says Florencia López Boo, leading economist of the IDB's Division of Health and Social Protection. "At this moment we are analyzing the results of these children 5 years after the end of the intervention."
A practical (and free) guide
From this project, we developed an illustrated guide in English, downloadable and free, which invites you to follow, from the comfort of your home or your health center, what has been done in health centers in Jamaica, Santa Lucia and Antigua. You can watch the videos online and follow the dynamics that, step by step, are described in the document.
The guide not only addresses and gives access to audiovisual content, but also teaches how to make six different toys with materials that can easily be found at home. From rattles to bottles, the idea is that mothers can have on hand elements that help physically and intellectually stimulate the baby.
Photo gallery: how to make homemade toys?
"The game enhances the child's ability to solve problems and overcome challenges," says Marta Rubio-Codina, senior economist and child development expert at the IDB. "The game develops their communication skills and promotes the production of language and creativity."