Child Development and Slum Life

Written by Corrie Fraser, KCK UK Director.

"Recently whilst in Uganda, I took the time to train our KCK staff in certain Child Development theories in order to give them a theoretical background from which to base our projects and practices at Kids Club Kampala. Many of them expressed that the ideas I brought to them were new to them and it got me thinking. Why have the theories of child development not reached the caregivers of the children who are most in need? The children we work with at Kids Club Kampala are growing up in some of the most difficult, traumatic and unstable environments on the planet. Many have been orphaned or abandoned, most lack access to education and healthcare and the majority are given responsibility fit for individuals far beyond their years. Our staff and volunteers at KCK are extremely motivated towards doing what is best for the children they care for so we need to equip them as best we can. For all the years of child development research that has been done across the world why has this information and research not reached the children who need it most?

From my experience working with children living in slum environments I have observed various  patterns in their early development. There are children who develop slowly both in social and cognitive development, who remain relatively unresponsive to communication and do not show much response to the emotions or facial expressions of others. At the same time there are children who develop faster than children in the West seem to, learning to walk earlier, eat solid food at an earlier age and assume responsibility far beyond their years. These patterns have led me to believe that the way in which slum children develop would most definitely be an area of interest for researchers.

During the seminar which I led on child development the discussion frequently came back to the same dilemma. How much support does a child need to develop and how much independence do they need? The discussion ultimately focused on culture as the main driver of how much importance parents and caregivers place on support and independence. It was stated that children in Western cultures can often be supported ‘too much’ to a level that actually stunts their development by not allowing them to develop certain skills autonomously. For example when a parent does not allow a child to dress themselves independently when they are at an age where they should be able to do this for themselves. However the flip side of this is the culture of allowing children so much independence whereby they are taking on responsibilities fit for adults, and this can often been seen in Ugandan slum society. For example it is very common to see a child of around 4 or 5 years arrive at our Kids Clubs on a Saturday with their 8 month old baby brother or sister on their back, no parent in sight and this child is expected to be the baby’s caregiver and supervisor for the whole day. So where does the balance lie? How can a child develop correctly whereby they are challenged enough to develop the skills they need but not burdened too much that they miss out on the carefree childhood they deserve?

In a slum context this is a difficult question to answer as there are many variables that lead to a child being over burdened and the crux of it is poverty. I believe that children should be allowed a carefree environment in which to learn and develop without being expected to perform tasks far beyond their developmental level and be responsible for their younger siblings. However it is not always that simple in an impoverished community. For example, if a child’s parents are struggling to survive, to feed, clothe and educate their children then childcare will often become the responsibility of an older sibling even if that sibling is only 5 years old themselves. For this reason the development of children living in poverty is a community problem and the solution will ultimately come from communities being transformed and lifted out of poverty.

Whilst researching poverty and child development I found that most studies seem to focus on nutrition, which is understandable due to the level of food insecurity in these communities. However, since KCK has been working in the slums of Kampala and providing nutritious meals for children we have seen the levels of malnutrition drop and the overall health of children improve. And although this is an amazing feat in itself there still seem to be huge obstacles to child development and in particular early childhood development. One obstacle of course is lack of education. Many of the children who attend our Kids Clubs now receive sponsorship to go to school and receive an education. However it is the earlier years of life, before a child is of schoolage that they are most vulnerable and in most need of support for their development.

A group of psychologists (Arulmani et al.) reviewed child development in the slums of India  and outlined the reality that cognitive impairments have been linked to under nourishment, however they also state that simply improving nutrition does not seem to counteract this problem effectively. They suggest that it is the level of high quality stimulation, for example that found through attendance at pre-school that has a huge positive impact on a child’s cognitive development. They state that

“It is when nutritional inputs combine with psychologically sound, enriched learning environments that gains in cognitive functioning are noted amongst children in poverty.”

So it is the youngest children growing up in the slums of Kampala that are the most vulnerable and are the ones who are held back most by their environment. What would it look like if every toddler navigating through the earliest years of their life was able to have access to educational and stimulating environments that support them as they develop? How could we make this possible for children in today’s urban slums?"

Suggestions and thoughts welcome to