While many parents are concerned that their kids are falling behind academically during the current Covid-19 lockdown, children’s emotional and psychological wellbeing is just as important.
This is particularly the case with pre-schoolers, who may struggle to process what Covid-19 means in their universe.
As parents, we don’t always know how to encourage our young ones to talk about their feelings.
Sometimes, we feel guilty that we’re passing on our anxiety to them – or that we’re unable to give them the attention and emotional support they need as we juggle multiple responsibilities.
As Takalani Sesame, South Africa’s beloved early childhood development television programme turns 20 years old this year, we are aware that the show plays an important role not only in delivering quality early learning but also in helping children deal with emotional stress.
Rooted in Sesame Street’s holistic "whole child" ideology, an approach that has stood the test of time over more than 50 years, Takalani Sesame’s mission is to help kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder.
Not only do the colourful Muppet characters charm kids with song and dance while teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills, they also go a step further, helping them to develop traits such as resilience, persistence, creativity, collaboration, appreciation of diversity, emotional expression and, perhaps most importantly, ubuntu.
We all know that the world could benefit from a little ubuntu right now, which is at the centre of the recently launched new season of Takalani, as the show seeks to nurture a culture of kindness and acceptance.
Perhaps because the Muppets are beamed into their lounges every weekday – and because they are cute, furry and approachable – kids often see them as their friends and confidantes.
The characters are a metaphor for our society, representing multiculturalism, multilingualism and multiracialism.
Their message is clear: there is an inclusive home for everyone in the Takalani family, just as there is space for a diversity of people and views in our country.
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And there is ample space for more kindness and ubuntu in this world.
One of the aims of Takalani Sesame is to get parents more involved in the social, intellectual and emotional development of their children – particularly during those crucial first six years of life when their brains are so receptive to stimulation.
This can help parents know what’s preoccupying a child and can be an avenue into those tough conversations.
And for children from less advantaged homes and troubled backgrounds, programmes like Takalani Sesame can help provide a bedrock of education, friendliness and stability.
We, therefore, encourage parents to watch the show with their children, discuss the situations the characters find themselves in, and unpack the solutions with them.
One of my favourite memories is when we were filming for a Takalani Sesame video at a preschool in Orange Farm, and I chatted to a lone father coming to fetch his child among a sea of moms.
His response really warmed my heart.
He said something along the lines of, "Whether or not my wife is able to do the school run, it’s important for me to do it and develop a strong relationship with my child. Playing an active role in child-rearing builds my son’s confidence and gives him a strong foundation. It may be part of my moral obligation to be there for my child, but I do it with a lot of love."
We know there are many fathers with the same attitude, and part of our outreach programme focuses on promoting the involvement of male caregivers in the education and development of children.
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Play is also a powerful way for children to express themselves.
In addition to modelling learning through play, the Takalani Sesame Muppets encourage children to talk through their feelings by enacting and dealing with certain emotionally stressful situations, and to "belly breathe" when they feel anxious or frustrated.
Using song, dance, humour and imagination, we engage children and encourage them to take part in quality play away from the TV screen as a way of expressing themselves and dealing with difficult emotions.
All of this adds up to a holistic view of the child as a sentient, emotional being. And as a parent or caregiver, spending time with your child will greatly aid them in their learning journey.
The precious time spent with your little one can help you to bond and to really engage with each other – which is especially important at a time like this, when kids may well be stressed beyond what many of us comprehend.
Giving them the educational tools and emotional stability they need now will generate the greatest return on investment you could ever hope for – a small investment for a lifetime of dividends.
Innocent Nkata is the Managing Director of Sesame Workshop South Africa, the non-profit media and educational organisation behind Takalani Sesame, which airs on weekdays at 15:30 on SABC 2.
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