PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (January 20, 2012) — It might look like simple fun, but the dominos, coloring pencils, construction blocks, hand puppets, puzzle pieces and memory games in Jean Pierre’s school are about more than just a good time.
They came from one of the thousands of early childhood development (ECD) kits UNICEF has distributed since Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake, part of efforts to reintroduce normalcy and stability to the lives of children.
Two years after the quake, many of them are still coming to terms with the trauma of the disaster, which killed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed a vast number of homes.
Jean Pierre lost his father and mother during the earthquake and now lives with an aunt. "When I play with toys, it removes the sadness inside me and I forget the sorrow and I feel better," he said.
These kits are just one part of a broader UNICEF program to help the Haitian government, parents and preschools maximize the potential of ECD—interventions to prepare young children for years of learning and growth.
In addition, UNICEF is providing technical support to BUGEP ("Bureau de gestion de l’Education Préscolaire"), on the development of an ECD policy for Haiti. Yolaine Vandal, the head of BUGEP, understands the value of providing early education to children under age 5, before they even get to school.
"You can see the difference clearly," she said. "The children who have been in preschool have the basics and they are prepared for the curriculum. The kids that have been in preschool already know how to express themselves, how to behave in the classroom, how to concentrate on a task, recognize images, remember things."
UNICEF is also supporting a BUGEP training for 300 educators, who will then spread their skills to other teachers, Vandal said. These skills include learning how to monitor pupils on a daily basis and evaluating individual children's well-being.
In addition, since the earthquake, UNICEF has reached tens of thousands of children with ECD kits, which help preschools teach foundational skills to children, such as sorting, organizing and relating items to each other.
"Even bright children can be left behind without a good preschool experience. This can have long-term consequences," Vandal said.
The ECD program also includes education for parents on non-classroom aspects of child development. Parents learn proper nutrition and sanitation to protect children from waterborne diseases, and what they can do at home to help their children prepare for school.
"We help parents see how to help their kids with writing, drawing and simple design. This is very important for development," said Vandal. "You can see clearly the changes in the kids that are getting this kind of development."
St. Benedict School serves a population of people whose homes were destroyed by the 2010 earthquake. The families remain displaced by the disaster, living in tents or other temporary shelters nearby.
Located in a UNICEF tent on a former golf course in Port-au-Prince, St. Benedict overflows with toddlers between 2 and 6 years old, all of them busily engaged in playful activities.
Guided by instructors, the children use crayons, modelling clay, building blocks, and other materials to build houses, cars, people and other objects reminiscent of a normal childhood.
"The ECD kit gives children a sense of security and fun that they often do not find at home," said Emanuela Itacy, the kindergarten’s head instructor.
"Sometimes," he added, "the children are so engaged that they do not want to go home."