How Institutionalization Impacts Early Literacy & BLOOM’s Response

Moments after my daughter Naya was born, she stuck her tongue out at me. “Bathoonee hogee (She will be a talker)!” my mother said with a laugh, and she was right. Since that day, my daughter and I are always talking. I would respond to her gurgles and coos in long sentences, telling her all about whatever I was doing. The sound of my voice soothed her. On our daily walk I would point things out, slowly building her vocabulary. When Naya would cry or fuss, I knew she was letting me know that something was wrong. Usually a bottle, a snuggle or a diaper change would do the trick.  

8 years after Naya was born, I found myself at an orphanage on the top floor of a hospital in Meknes, Morocco. I was about to meet my 3-month-old son and begin the kafala (adoption) process to bring him home. One of the first things that struck me that day was how quiet it was. There were rows and rows of metal cribs filled with tiny babies, but barely a sound. In my naiveté, I thought “They must be so well cared for!” I soon realized that babies stop crying, gurgling and cooing when no one responds.  

Deprivation leads to a poor foundation for literacy and success. 

When thinking about literacy we often think about the alphabet, reading, writing and school. Early childhood educators tell a different story, literacy actually begins in the womb! Babies listen to us in utero. Once born, they start communicating through gurgles, coos, cries and facial expressions. When caring adults respond to this baby language, it helps brain development and lays the foundation for language and literacy. As toddlers continue to learn and explore, vocabulary is built along the way. Talking, singing, reading, writing and playing are a child’s work, and build a strong cognitive foundation. This development, known as ‘early literacy’, is critical for school readiness and academic success.  

Children who are spoken and read to have been shown to have larger vocabularies, be more attentive, become better readers, and ultimately do better in school.  

* Based on studies of children in the United States  

“When parents talk, read, and sing with their babies and toddlers, connections are formed in their young brains. These connections build language, literacy, and social–emotional skills at an important time in a young child’s development.” 

American Academy of Pediatrics 

Institutionalized orphans in Morocco face not only the trauma of abandonment, but also deprivation at an unimaginable level. Their basic survival needs are met, but catastrophically, they are deprived of relationships and experiences. The orphans are an isolated and marginalized group that miss out on a normal social, economic and cultural life.  

From the very beginning, they are deprived of a dedicated caregiver. They have minimal opportunities to develop language and vocabulary – the foundation of literacy. There are rarely any books to be read, and no adults to read to them. Limited access to play, the outdoors, a stimulating environment, and a lack of social connections, hinder all aspects of healthy development.  

The extreme deprivation faced by Morocco’s orphans in these early years leaves a lasting and detrimental impact. Early literacy skills build a foundation for school readiness and educational success, and the consequences of a poor foundation lasts a lifetime. 

BLOOM’s Actions to Improve Early Literacy for Morocco’s Orphans 

BLOOM Charity’s mission is to improve quality of life for institutionalized orphans in Morocco by focusing on their mental health and early childhood development. BLOOM’s key programs include 1) Magical PlayGardens to give orphans access to the outdoors and play, 2) Enrichment Classes including art, music, gardening and fitness in the PlayGardens, and 3) supporting and educating caregivers about early childhood development and learn-through-play activities. 

In a BLOOM PlayGarden the children are outdoors, stimulated, playing and interacting. When children communicate through play, they learn how language works. This allows them to start constructing literacy skills from the knowledge of spoken language. They eventually connect spoken language to written language and, in this way, the children develop literacy through play. Playtime in BLOOM’s Magical PlayGardens helps facilitate a strong foundation in language and early literacy. 

BLOOM’s Enrichment Programs include instruction in art, music, gardening, yoga and even dental hygiene. The Enrichment Programs introduce the children to new language and concepts, building their vocabulary bank. Story-time in the PlayGarden develops their love of reading and exposes them to print. Fine and gross motor skills develop while the children exercise, build blocks and color – establishing a healthy foundation for future writers.  

BLOOM also supports orphanage caregivers by providing an environment rich with resources and materials, in which they can engage with the children. Our PlayGardens are colorful, vibrant outdoor spaces, with so much to explore. BLOOM educates the caregivers about how to help children learn-through-play. Research shows that early literacy skills are best developed through talking, singing, reading, writing and playing. The child size tables and chairs BLOOM provided at the rooftop PlayGarden in Meknes have been a hit, and one can often find a caregiver reading to the children, telling them a story, singing songs or engaging in dramatic play.  

While the love of a parent and normal childhood experiences can never be replaced – BLOOM works to improve quality of life for Morocco’s institutionalized orphans. Providing a healthier start to life helps their psychosocial health, cognitive development, school readiness, academic success and long-term outcomes. BLOOM’s work builds a stronger foundation for Moroccan orphans, including in early literacy.  

On this International Literacy Day, we are reminded that literacy is a gateway to success in education, personal autonomy, economic opportunity, and a means for social and human development.  Early literacy builds a foundation for school readiness and educational success, and we hope to see this success for the institutionalized orphans we serve. 

Resources: 

https://www.readingrockets.org/article/early-literacy-policy-and-practice-preschool-years

https://www.jstor.org/stable/42742374

https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1134673.pdf

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