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Shaping Children's First Years in India

“In my childhood, if a child was not feeling well, we used to take him to the traditional healer, who would beat the sick child with a broom in order to drive out the sickness and evils inside,” says Manali, a 25-year-old mother of two, remembering life in the remote Indian village where she grew up. “My parents didn’t pay much attention to us. Even when I was 6 years old, my son’s age now, I had responsibility for my younger siblings.”

Manali’s children, 6-year-old Kunal and 3-year-old Komal, are getting an all-around different start.

When Manali married seven years ago, she moved to Gondale-Shedgekond, one of 43 rural villages served by ChildFund in the Raigad district of Maharashtra state. “From that day onward, I’ve been involved in ChildFund’s programs,” she says. Primary among those is ChildFund’s Early Childhood Development (ECD) program, which educates and supports parents to meet the needs of the youngest children.

Virendra Kulkarni is program manager of PRIDE India, the local partner organization through which ChildFund serves children in this area. He affirms Manali’s early experience as typical. “In the village that is a little bit away from this one, we see the children severely malnourished,” he says. “We learned through different training programs that 80 percent of brain development takes place in the first three years of a child’s life. That is neglected by the parents because they have to go to the fields to work.”

ECD focuses on a child’s first five years, with an eye toward maximizing that 80 percent. “The Early Childhood Development program is a key program of the organization,” says Kulkarni, “as it wants the children to not only be healthy and well-nourished but also to reach their highest potential, now and in the future.”

Now, Manali has a firm grasp of how all aspects of her children’s development intersect and her role in supporting them. “I’ve learned that sanitation and hygiene are so important for my family,” she says. “Whenever Kunal comes home from playing outside, I make sure he cleans his hands and feet before coming into the house.”

Her new knowledge about basic health empowers her to act when there’s trouble: “My son had dysentery, and I knew to provide him with some oral rehydration solution here at home,” she says. “Then I took him to the doctor for treatment.”

She also knows how to keep her children healthy day to day. Children in the village are monitored monthly — both through home visits and at the ECD center attended by all the community’s preschool-age children — to ensure their height and weight are on target and they are well nourished. Mothers learn in classes how to prepare protein-rich, nourishing foods from locally available ingredients.

The Early Childhood Development program … wants the children to not only be healthy and well-nourished but also to reach their highest potential, now and in the future.

—Virendra Kulkarni, PRIDE Program manager

To help parents support their children’s cognitive, communicative, motor skill and social development, trained community volunteers perform monthly visits where they “play” with children ages 0 to 3, giving them challenges from ChildFund’s innovative child development scale and carefully tracking their progress. Afterward, they talk mothers through how they can continue stimulating their children between visits.

The ECD center extends this stimulation in a high-quality preschool environment geared toward the whole child. Kulkarni notes that ECD preschools focus more on helping children understand basic concepts than on alphabet and math; instead of learning numbers, for example, they learn — through play, song, story and art — what “how many” really means. “Concepts like backward or forward, up and down, colors — these are given a lot of importance,” he says. “Once the conceptual clarity is done, definitely they are going to learn in a better way when they start attending school.”

And they do. In the days before ECD programming arrived in the area, Kulkarni says, children used to drop out of school after first or second grade. Now both the ECD centers and schools report 100 percent enrollment.

Manali can’t help but see the contrast between Gondale-Shedgekond and her childhood village. “In that village, the children are malnourished — you can tell,” she says. “The children aren’t growing up healthy. But my children here are staying on track and living well.”

And she relishes her role. Most of all, though, Manali enjoys her children themselves. “I love it when the children start to learn to speak and communicate with you,” she says, “when they make songs in their own way. It’s so special.”

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