One-year-old baby Moses and father Ponsilio Phiri playing in Zambia in 2020. Baby Moses is enrolled in the LEGO Playful Parenting program implemented by UNICEF.

In Zambia, Playful Parenting Brings Fathers and Children Closer

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A look at how a community-based parenting program supported by UNICEF and the LEGO Foundation has helped families thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Raising four little girls is a joy for Peter Phiri and his wife Faustina Phiri of Kholowa Village, Katete District, Eastern Province, Zambia. But the COVID-19 pandemic made this past year a difficult one. 

“As a father and husband, it is my responsibility to ensure the well-being of my family,” says Peter, below, with Faustina and their baby daughter, Carol. “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.”


Two People Holding Blanket


The pressures of the COVID-19 crisis have affected the mental health and well-being of parents and caregivers, sometimes straining 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.

Before the pandemic, regular group parenting sessions at community-based Insaka Early Childhood Development (ECD) hubs supported by UNICEF and the LEGO Foundation were a valuable resource. During the pandemic, trained volunteers were able to continue those services by visiting individual families, promoting playful parenting and responsive care and offering parents support and counseling while still maintaining physical distancing. 

“I have learned 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,” Faustina says.


Man and Baby Smiling at Each other


One of the key messages the parenting volunteers share with parents like Lukas Phiri, above, with 4-month-old Faith, is the importance of starting playful interactions early on, even during the first few weeks when a baby is just watching things around them. Games focused on the senses are a good way to engage and stimulate babies from the very start.


One-year-old baby Lucky and his mom play hide and seek in Zambia in 2020.


“Before we participated in playful parenting sessions, most of the children would be at the observer stage for longer than [they] should be, because we as parents were too busy with other things,” Faustina says. “Taking time to play with the children seemed to be time-wasting.”


Mclean and Lukas Phiri are parents to two daughters, Christine and Faith, in Kholowa Village, Katete District in Eastern Province, Zambia.


Mclean and Lukas Phiri, above, with daughters Christine and Faith, enjoy the monthly visits from their parenting volunteer. They're looking forward to the eventual reopening of Kholowa's Insaka hub, pictured below, which also serves as a platform for integrated community development, promoting good nutrition, learning through play and adult literacy. 


Aerial view of the Kholowa Insaka hub built in Katete District Eastern province, Zambia.


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

One positive of life during the pandemic is that many families get to spend more time together than before. Peter has taken advantage of the extra time to find local materials to make toy instruments for his daughters to play with.


Family Standing in Front of House


“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,” Faustina says. Once a month, the family is notified about the CBV's visit to make sure they'll be home on the appointed day.


Woman Holding Up an Instructional Guide


Beatrice Banda, above, one of the trained CBVs at the Kholowa hub, makes regularly scheduled monthly visits to ten households in the village. “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.”


Baby Reaching Out to Man Holding Them


Since the inception of the Insaka playful parenting hub in Katete, a total number of 585 CBVs have been trained, reaching 10,052 parents and caregivers with lessons in playful parenting, sanitation and child nutrition.

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Top photo: Moses, 1, plays with his father, Ponsilio Phiri, in the village of Kholowa in Zambia’s Katete District in Eastern Province. Baby Moses and his family are enrolled in the playful parenting program supported by UNICEF and the LEGO Foundation. All photos © Kinny Siachokoma/OutSet Media for UNICEF