Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
The situation of child health in Hungary is deteriorating at a rapid pace. Life expectancy at birth is lower than in neighboring countries. Morbidity reports have revealed the fact that illnesses caused by lifestyle or environmental factors have begun to come forward in the childhood years. Children frequently suffer from allergies, psychosomatic symptoms, and eating disorders, and there is a general lack of physical activity at early ages. The hazardous behaviors of substance abuse, smoking and drinking are distressingly widespread among teenagers.
The most impactful way to protect children from these illnesses and from turning to obsessive substances/activities is primary prevention. The goal of primary prevention is to make children aware of healthy lifestyle alternatives and to teach them how to recognize and reject behaviors harmful to health. Professionals specialized in prevention and health education concluded that passing on knowledge and up-to-date information fails to yield the desired results. Instead, practical learning experience based on repetition and routine is needed to influence habits in the long run.
It is scientifically proven that children develop their behavior patterns, norms and general life skills – especially their health habits – before reaching the age of seven. How the child develops during this period of early childhood sets the stage for later success in school and their character in adolescence and adulthood. Therefore, primary prevention has the biggest effect on children’s health at this age. It takes place in two different but strongly connected learning environments: principally in the family until the age of three and secondarily in the pre-school until the age of six or seven. Since the development of a child is totally dependent on these learning environments, it is of critical importance that both parents and pre-school teachers form a communicative, cooperative relationship. Children bring the norms learned in their family to the pre-school and bring home the experiences picked up in pre-school.
The ever-changing modern society is strongly shaping the traditional family models. In order to ensure a normal standard of living, both parents have to work full-time. No longer does the traditional Hungarian “housewife” only engaged in raising children apply; women return to their workplace soon after giving birth to a child to avoid losing their jobs. Families cannot undertake their primary role in parenting because of the living conditions they face. Because of these sweeping changes in family structures, there is a new paradigm of child-rearing emerging in Hungary. Institutional development carried out by pre-schools is getting more important than ever. Suddenly, the concept of pre-schools playing only a minor role in a child’s life has completely changed. Children now spend an average of eight hours per day in pre-school, which is even more than the time spent with their families per year. While pre-schools cannot fully take on the role of families, they can help in filling the gaps in comprehensive life education.
With this situation at hand, parents expect pre-schools to undertake intensive cognitive development for their children with more advanced classes, research shows. They think that the role of pre-schools is to prepare children for the primary school by practicing reading, writing and elementary algebra. However, pre-schools still feel it is important to maintain a child-centered approach in the early years, not an education-centered one. This discrepancy results in a gap between expectations and reality, and between parents and pre-school teachers.
Reacting to these socioeconomic changes, the Ministry of National Resources updated the National Curriculum of Pre-school Pedagogy in the academic year of 2010-2011. This newer general framework highlights that prevention, health education and raising environmental consciousness are the key roles of pre-schools. It also stresses the role of games, arts and experiential learning in early childhood development as opposed to formally educating children in the same way as schools do. However, there has been no tangible guidance on a national level for parents and pre-school teachers – tools, practical methods and trainings – provided by the government or any citizen sector organization on how to implement such a complex approach to health into the daily lives of children based on experiential learning, tripartite collaboration and reflection on the changes in society.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Márta Bácskai is working to incorporate integrated health education into public and private pre-schools in Hungary in order that children can better understand and expand their inner resources. Márta founded Go Healthy! to equip pre-school teachers and parents with a set of practical tools and methods based on games, arts (tales, music, dance, handicrafts) and theatre pedagogy to more easily encourage children to express themselves and reach a deep level of self-definition, even at a young age.
In a country where negative lifestyle choices are common and lead to earlier onset of illness and general poor quality of life, Márta is combatting the entrenched system to provide new channels to health and success early on. Márta envisions a world where every child has the right to grow up with mental, spiritual and physical health, fulfilling their potential as human beings. In her opinion, prevention and health education in pre-schools is the best way to eliminate any kind of illness, mental or physical, in adulthood and let children become individuals who are self-conscious, self-aware, driven by their own values and in a state of complete mental-physical well-being.
In order to reach maximum success, cooperation with pre-school teachers and parents is essential. It is the pre-school teacher who can best influence early childhood years through connection to children and parents. Thus, Márta is supporting a previously unexplored method of tripartite collaboration between children, parents and pre-school teachers, where all the three parties work together to serve the whole child. Márta’s network of “ambassador” pre-school teachers is responsible for expanding the program and managing the existing partnerships throughout Hungary. In seven years, Go Healthy! has worked with 1350 pre-schools in Hungary and 250 in Transylvania and is in the process of further expanding the model in other regions and to neighboring countries.