Picture books and rhymes are boosting learning for very young children in Bangladesh

November 20, 2015


Story Highlights
  • In Bangladesh, 61 million children suffer from malnutrition and other developmental problems. Most Bangladeshi children lack appropriate stimulation and early learning opportunities.
  • A low-cost program run by Save the Children is teaching mothers from the poorest families how to interact and play with very young children.
  • The World Bank is funding an in-depth evaluation of the program in Satkania, Muladi, and Kulaura as part of its support to Bangladesh for early childhood development.

Barisal District, NOVEMBER 20, 2015--- In a modest home in southern Bangladesh, 19-year-old Mina tells stories to her son Musa, who is not quite three. Mina teaches the boy rhymes and songs. The two read picture books together. He stares intently at the pages, his mouth open with excitement.

“He knows the books very well,” Mina explains proudly. “If I show him a picture of a leaf, he will tell me: ‘It’s from the tree.’”  Pointing at a picture in the book, she also asks questions. “I will ask Musa: ‘Can you tell me how many onions there are?’ And he will tell me correctly.”

Musa wasn’t always so engaged. But, today, Mina has high hopes for him. “Now I see the energy in my child. I dream that he will be number one in his class,” she says. “When he becomes a doctor, I will be very proud.”

What changed?

Save the Children’s low-cost Early Childhood Stimulation Program  has been teaching mothers and other caregivers in very poor families how to interact and play with children under age 3. The pilot program also teaches them to how to respond appropriately to the children’s emotional and physical needs.

A child’s early years are particularly important in their development

“Those first few years can be a time of great opportunity if the child is properly stimulated. Or they can be a period of great vulnerability, if the child is exposed to violence or stress,” says American Institutes for Research senior researcher Marjorie Chinen, who is part of the World Bank supported team that is evaluating the program’s impact on children’s development.

“That’s why it is very important to educate parents about the importance of early childhood stimulation,” Chinen says.

Supporting early childhood development is now part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals agenda, in recognition of the long-term impact on children’s ability to learn and on later income earnings and productivity.


Save the Children’s pilot program is already being delivered through the Bangladesh National Nutrition Service’s existing nutrition program, which is run through community clinics and home visits.  As part of the pilot program, community health care and family planning providers counsel families on early childhood stimulation practices. They use face-to-face meetings in the home or at the community clinics during sick or well-baby visits. Each household in the program also receives a Child Development Card and two picture books, plus instructions on how to use the card and the books.

The World Bank and other development partners are also supporting Bangladesh as the country tries to mainstream early childhood development into public education through its large primary education program. In places where public capacity to deliver pre-primary education does not yet exist, the program is looking at working with NGOs that serve young children, particularly in remote areas.

“Working with parents to help them further bond with their children by stimulating their minds with books and storytelling is a very effective way to ensure healthy development and readiness to learn in school,” said Claudia Costin, the World Bank’s Senior Director for Education.

Many children could potentially benefit

61 million children in Bangladesh suffer from malnutrition and other developmental problems. Most children lack appropriate stimulation and early learning opportunities. There is some evidence that programs such as Save the Children’s can improve childhood development. Less is known about how to provide such programs in cost-effective ways in low-income settings.

To that end, the World Bank’s Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund is funding the in-depth evaluation of the Save the Children program. It relies on a cluster-randomized control trial to analyze its impact in the regions of Satkania, Muladi, and Kulaura in Bangladesh.

Under the evaluation, 78 community clinics are randomly assigned to participate in the program – or not participate. Researchers are collecting data to measure the children’s cognitive and language development, as well as evidence about family members’ efforts at early childhood stimulation.

Chinen, the evaluation’s principal investigator, notes the evaluation is “important because it will not only generate evidences on whether the program works or not, but also why and how the program works. We have designed the study to give us answers to all these questions.”

Results of the study will help the Bangladeshi government design a national rollout of its nutrition program coupled with an early childhood stimulation component.

Already, positive changes have occurred in Musa’s home. Musa’s father, for one, has changed his behavior. When the boy was younger, his father was busy working and had little time for Musa.

“Then he saw how Musa was engaging with the books and it made him interested,” Mina says. “Now when Musa asks too many questions, his father steps in and also teaches him.”