Photo: Parents work together to create toys that develop fine-motor skills and increase physical development in their preschool children. MCC photo/Lê Đắc Phúc.
A line of stuffed animals—a fish, butterfly and penguin—march across a classroom table. Like the discarded sandals, cans and bottles that parents have used to make this colorful menagerie, the toys will soon find a new home and purpose.
These toys are the product of a toy-making competition that drew participants from four villages in the Tân Sơn district of Vietnam’s northern province Phú Thọ last year. Parents and grandparents of students who attend preschools in these areas constructed the toys from locally available, recycled and natural materials.
The initiative is part of the work of Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) partner Tân Sơn People’s Committee (TSPC). The group supports early education projects in rural villages such as Thanh, Đồng Dò, Bòng and Dìa, helping prepare preschoolers and their families for primary school.
Prior to the contest, teachers explained to parents and grandparents how to create toys their young children can play with at school or home. A panel of judges advanced winning teams from each village to a championship round. The Đồng Dò Village team was named the overall winner with their toy flowers, houses and instruments. All the villages’ preschool students received uniform jackets.
Involving parents, increasing child nutrition, equipping teachers and sponsoring events such as the toy competition improve the well-being of the community, says Eva B. Mazharenko, an MCC representative for Vietnam with her husband, Nikolai. They are from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Many families in Tân Sơn are impoverished and rely on subsistence farming to support their families, Mazharenko says. During a busy season of farming or gathering, parents may not have the time to support their children beyond their basic needs. An older sibling or elderly family member may be tasked with watching the children, or in some cases, the children may be left alone at home.
Local preschools are a safe alternative for children ages 3 to 5, a period in which nutrition and early literacy are crucial to a child’s healthy development. At the preschools MCC supports, “the focus is on the children, their safety, their well-being and their needs,” Mazharenko says.
Đinh Thị Nhàn, who lives in Bãi Muỗi Village, was one of 80 participants in the contest. She is the primary caregiver of her granddaughter Qúy. At the preschool Qúy attends, MCC provides nutritious lunches and life skills trainings to parents, caregivers and teachers on topics such as child abuse protection, health and sanitation.
Đinh* wanted to participate in the competition to show her appreciation for the support her granddaughter receives. She created traditional toys to help the children learn more about their cultural heritage.
Villages in the Tân Sơn District are isolated and lack electrical grids and retail centers. During the monsoon season—the Phú Thọ Province receives an average of seven inches of rainfall in its wettest month—roads leading from the villages to towns are impassable and vulnerable to mudslides. Acquiring toys for children may be difficult if not impossible.
The toy competition encouraged parents and grandparents to create toys that develop fine-motor skills and increase physical development in their children. Some toys were sent home to families, while some remained at the schools. When parents are involved in events like this, they understand the importance of their involvement in child-rearing, Mazharenko says.
“Communal events are one of the most important ways of community building,” Mazharenko says.
In addition to these events and teacher trainings, MCC supports the physical maintenance of preschools. When a storm damaged the roof of a preschool in the Suối Bòng village, allowing rain to leak into the classroom, MCC provided traditional materials for its repair. Community members then led and completed the construction.
Qúy’s new toys are a symbol of communities that are organizing to support their youngest members. When Qúy steps into primary school, she will be equipped to do what is most important at her age: to learn and have fun.
*In Vietnam, family names are given first.