Playshop Moves African Children Forward in Malawi (Video Insert)

six children with two teachers in a Malawi classroom Firelight’s mission is two-pronged: to improve the well-being of vulnerable children and to support grassroots organizations. Our grantee partners tackle many different projects to support children and strengthen the safety net of care in their community. While each year we see new ideas and approaches, there are many recurrent themes. Early childhood development (ECD) is one of them.

Many of our partners have recognized that early childhood, from pregnancy to age 8, is a time of special promise and potential. During this time, critical development takes place on almost every aspect of a child’s health, intellectual, and social development. As the Consultative Group of Early Childhood Care and Development states, children in this age group “experience the most rapid period of growth and change during the human lifespan.” Children at this early stage of life are also susceptible to malnutrition, disease, and inadequate access to social services.

Many of our partners work with their communities to create programs that support families and young children to reach their potential. In Malawi, especially, the majority of our partners support early childhood development programs in some form or another. Many support community-run CBCCs, otherwise known as “community-based childcare centers.” These centers are initiated and run by communities to care for children that are not yet in school.

Children come each day to learn, play, and eat. The centers are usually staffed by volunteers, which is often parents taking rotating shifts to allow each other time to work in the fields or earn an income for their family. These centers also serve as hubs for child services in the community, with local health officials using them as key points to reach children and families. This model has taken off like wildfire in Malawi, with well over 5,000 of these CBCCs serving children.

Recognizing the strength of this model and wanting to learn from the work of our partners, Firelight launched a program on strengthening early childhood development programs with 10 organizations in Malawi and 7 organizations next-door in Zambia. A Firelight donor, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation made this possible.

Firelight has taken a unique approach to this project. We asked two strong organizations, Mulumbo Early Childhood Care and Development Foundation in Zambia and Namwera AIDS Coordinating Committee in Malawi to lead the program. They have taken on this role with gusto, first visiting each participating organization to introduce the project and better understand the work the organization is doing in ECD. Their feedback from that trip informed the contents of a workshop in February to kick-off the program.

The workshop focused on key concepts in ECD: community participation and resource mobilization. Mulumbo and NACC led the workshop, usingchildren playinga participatory style that drew out and built upon what these community activists already know about running programs serving young children. People were able to learn from each other’s experiences, which we find is the richest and most relevant form of learning for our partners.

No matter how interesting the content is, let’s admit it, sitting in a workshop all day can get a bit dull and tiring! Knowing this, workshop leaders asked partners to share children’s songs, games, and toys made from locally available materials in between sessions. Interspersing workshop sessions with games and songs really re-connected all of us with why we were in that room. Each organization, each person, came with a commitment to children.

While we can study best practice, working with children is not as simple as a mathematical equation or as complex as an academic endeavor. To grow up into strong members of their community, children require love, nurturing, attention, and playtime. Children need to connect to their community and cultural roots.

This video is from the workshop. It's one of the songs taught by the workshop participants, led by Emily Kayimba of Chikwawa Diocese Health Commission and Saeed Wame of Namwera AIDS Coordinating Committee (the snappy dancer in the blue shirt). In Chichewa, the song says, “we are not going back, we are moving forward.” Singing and dancing between workshop sessions was a great energizer.

As the song says, this program is not going back, it is moving forward.

Each participant returned to his or her organization and developed a strong proposal for how they want to use the small “top-up” grants they will now receive to strengthen ECD programs for the long-term. Initiatives such as teacher training, renovating preschool buildings, or embarking on small businesses to generate income are some of the ideas we heard.

These 17 organizations come together as a group two more times over the next two years. During this time, NACC and Mulumbo, the lead partners, will work with each organization to support its individual plan for strengthening ECD at the organization. I’m sure there will be more songs and games along the way.

At the same time, Firelight will be working with the organizations, lead partners, and country resource people to learn more about what is working in community-supported ECD programs and why. Every day, we are learning more about the vital role grassroots organizations play in building the community’s capacity to provide the support, opportunities, and connections that help vulnerable children grow into healthy, educated and centered adults.