Parenting is a responsibility that comes with its own challenges and apprehensions, no matter which part of the world you are living in.

In the Banda and Chitrakoot districts of Uttar Pradesh State, India, parents have found a new ‘friend’ — a digital service that uses interactive voice recognition technology to deliver guidance on how to help little ones learn and grow.

 A father with his daughter in Uttar Pradesh, India, where UNICEF and partners rolled out a service that guides parents in how to support their child’s development at home. © UNICEF India

Called Aapki Dost (Your Friend in Hindi), the service provides guidance by phone, encouraging a ‘talk, touch and play’ approach. The calls last one minute, and come four times a week at a prescheduled time; the intent is to support caregivers, and deliver information in an inspiring and fun manner — drawing from a curriculum that is based on decades of research in early childhood education. No internet connection or smartphone is needed to receive the calls.

Providing parents with the tools to support their child’s early development at home 

The service was developed as part of the Dular Initiative, an ECD partnership between UNICEF India and the Dost Learning Foundation, and implemented through the state Anganwadi (early childhood care center) system. When it launched in June 2021, in-person consultations with local experts in early childhood development (ECD) had become all but impossible; the COVID-19 pandemic had forced all the care centers to close.

The ‘friendly’ information is tailored to different ages. For caregivers of children of up to age 3, suggestions cover what to say to a baby while massaging their limbs, and how to encourage their discovery of colors, textures, shapes and other features of whatever items are at hand — a dupatta (scarf), say, or a kitchen utensil — in a way that is playful and fosters learning. For children ages 3 to 6, the advice covers more complex issues, such as ‘good touch’ vs. ‘bad touch’ and managing sibling rivalry. The service continues for 22 to 35 weeks depending on the pace of the user.

As of February 2022, over 1,400 Anganwadi workers had been trained to talk to parents about the Dular initiative and to help them register for Aapki Dost. So far, 30,000 users have signed up.

When asked what time they wanted their scheduled calls to come through, most families choose 8 a.m., before the men typically leave for work, or 4 p.m., after most have returned home, so that both parents could participate.

 A family at home in Uttar Pradesh, India, where UNICEF and partners have found innovative new ways to provide guidance on supporting early child development. © UNICEF India

Making it easy for caregivers to adopt the recommended talk, care and play practices

In a survey conducted by the Dost Learning Foundation in December 2021, 81 percent of users reported that the service helped them become more confident in managing their child’s development, including reducing their screen time.

Sindhuja Jeyabal, the foundation’s director, attributes the positive response to how the service — and the way information is relayed — makes it easy for caregivers to adopt the recommended talk, care and play practices within the home environment.

Dinesh, the father of a three-year-old daughter, listens with his wife to the call that comes in at 4 p.m. when he is back from the field. He says he has learned things that no one had ever mentioned to him before: “One of the messages said elders should not quarrel in front of children, and create a peaceful atmosphere at home,” he says.

Other parents say they learned how to tackle tantrums by diverting their children’s attention, rather than shouting at them or hitting them. 

Dinesh, 35, of Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh state, India, listens with his wife to ‘friendly’ messages delivered by mobile phone about how to support their 3-year-old daughter’s development. Creators of the service, called Aapki Dost, meaning ‘Your Friend’ in Hindi, say they made an effort to engage fathers. © UNICEF/India/2022/Sumita Thapar

Those who work at the Anganwadis say the service helped fill a void created during pandemic lockdowns. Still, as one worker, Radha Patel, notes, even when care education centers are open, not every guardian has a chance to visit. “This way everyone in the household learns about how to ensure learning during a child’s most formative years,” she says.

Manoj Kumar, the district program officer in Chitrakoot, says he expects more users to sign up as word about the service spreads. It’s free, and it’s excellent, he says. “All you have to do is listen.”

A cheat sheet for supporting children’s physical and mental well-being — while also having fun

UNICEF’s global ECD programming is rooted in the knowledge that while every stage of childhood marks an important step in the process of learning and growth, the first few years are critical for setting a strong foundation for a child’s lifelong journey. Advancing creative approaches such as Aapki Dost is just one way to help parents build conducive learning environments at home.

Another is Ghare Ghare Arunima, an intervention that launched in India’s Odisha State in March 2020, ahead of the quarantines and increasing isolation that would soon set in, in India and around the world. The name means “sunrise in every home” in Odia, the local language.

Like the phone calls from a ‘Friend’, this ‘Sunrise’ program also set out to bring early childhood care education (ECCE) directly into peoples’ homes. In this case it was by disseminating a calendar of activities for fathers, mothers, children and even grandparents to do together — a cheat sheet of sorts for supporting children’s physical and mental well-being.

“Menstreaming” activities to encourage participation by fathers and grandfathers — and break down parenting stereotypes

The calendar’s daily games, puzzles and storytelling are tailored to different ages (3-4, 4-5, 5-6) and, though consistent with the evidence-based ECCE curriculum, emphasize fun. Designers made a concerted effort toward “menstreaming” the activities to ensure participation by fathers and grandfathers.

“In terms of tasks, the stereotype that women will do the cooking and washing and men will do activities outdoors needed to be challenged,” UNICEF Education Specialist Lalita Patnaik explains. “We tried to reverse it by showing the mother solving a puzzle and men feeding a child, to put out this message in a subtle way.” 

Like the parenting phone calls, Sunrise offered a way for program partners to pivot as COVID-19 interrupted most in-person support services. With support workers still making house calls, printed copies of the calendar could be given to recipients who had trouble receiving the digital version — an option that helped expedite the program’s reach to 1.6 million children across the state.

Parents tell UNICEF that they believe the activities from the calendar have helped strengthen family bonds. They say the calendar has helped them understand how activities like singing and dancing can also contribute to a child’s development. For those managing child care at home, the calendars helped ensure children were learning something new every day.

The government of India has since replicated the Sunrise program in six other states — Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Assam, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — and the calendar has been translated into ten tribal languages. 

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Top photo: A father in Odisha, India, who receives early childhood care education with UNICEF’s support engages with his young children. © UNICEF/India/2022/Srikant Kolarir