By Peter Orengo
NAIROBI, KENYA: Children under the age of five who are carted off to school at dawn every morning are not just exposed to life-long asthma, they also face a shortened life span associated with diseases they encounter.
A new policy brief by United States-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB), Emerging Policy Issues in Population, Health, and Environment, explored children’s vulnerabilities and outlined the risks that affect children and their growth.
“Children are more heavily exposed to toxins in proportion to their body weight, and have more years of life ahead of them in which they may suffer long- term effects from early exposure,” says the report.
“Perinatal conditions which can be influenced by environ- mental conditions cause 20 per cent of deaths worldwide in children under the age five.”
Asthma studies in less developed countries have linked air pollution to lung cancer, still- births, low birth weight, heart ailments, and chronic respiratory diseases. The disease is characterized by recurrent attacks of breathlessness and wheezing, and affects between 100 million and 150 million people worldwide. It causes over 180,000 deaths every year, including 25,000 children’s deaths. Worldwide rates of asthma have risen by 50 per cent every 10 years since 1980.
Children cannot escape these infections because urbanisation and increased time spent indoors are strongly associated with its increase.
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The World Health Organisation says prevalence of asthma symptoms in children in Brazil, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay varies from 20 per cent to 30 per cent; in Kenya, it approaches 20 per cent.
Dr Adil Waris, a paediatric chest and allergy specialist at Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi, says the hospital is getting more cases of three and seven year old children developing asthma and other respiratory problems.
Most of those diagnosed are school going. “We discovered that these children are being exposed to harmful morning weather because they have to be awake quite early. Very young ones can develop permanent asthma because their lungs are still not fully developed to cope with such weather,” said Dr Waris.
“Several studies show that genes and an inherited tendency to develop allergies combined with environmental irritants increase the chances of developing asthma. In addition, the genetic factor can trigger the symptoms. These include allergens from house dust mite, cockroaches, mould and pollens from trees, grass and flowers.”
“We are recommending that schools have a spacer device and an inhaler in order to provide quick treatment if a child gets an attack in school,” said Dr Waris.
Today, if you step into most pre-schools, you will find a two-year-old flashing coloured shapes and being asked if they recognise ovals and diamonds. Often three-year-olds are forced to stand against the wall to recite what they are ordered to memorise. Some are punished for not standing still for the 30 minutes required.
Four-year-olds are made to write their names on lined paper, with many unable to hold the pencil correctly. They struggle, but are forced to keep working — even if it is counter- productive. They are handed technology devices to keep them busy and have fun. They play with puzzles on a screen instead of playing with the real
thing. They read words from a screen instead of holding real books. There is very little time for childhood.
And when they return home, the young ones have little time outdoors, not much time for conversation and less time for natural play and activities of imagination. After a hefty meal, they are forced to recite what they learnt in school before they go to bed. Children should not start formal learning until they are seven, according to an expert in nursery education, who suggests that teaching reading and writing earlier can put children off books for life.
Dr Philomena Ndambuki, a child psychologist at Kenyatta University, says going to school too early can cause major developmental harm, and at worst a shortened life-span.
“Most parents take children to school because they expect them to be schooled. What they don’t know is that they are going against conventional wisdom, that their intellect should be fed and stimulated early on in a natural way,” said Dr Ndambuki, who is also an education expert.
She adds that most teachers left with children who are too young do not provide them with appropriate lessons, and
this frustrates the children. This, in effect, denies them their childhood and ultimately affects their behaviour in later life.
Psychologists recommend that the right time for children to start schooling is when they are able to process information, which is, six to seven years. When they go to school too early — mostly three to five years — the child is still in the pre-operational stage and their cognitive processes as still largely undeveloped.
Dr Ndambuki says such children often underachieve for a variety of reasons. They are unable to manage time and are disorganised, frequently losing things. They also have an intrinsic lack of motivation to succeed; problems with friend- ships; bullying, being disruptive, confrontational or disrespectful in class. These children find it difficult to concentrate; they have poor handwriting and overall poor presentation of work. Ominously, they develop a perfectionist personality type, resulting in resisting work that is deemed more challenging because of the fear of failure.
“I think we have to take into account those who are not getting stimulated and need respite from poor parenting, and we must deal with that, but the rest would be better off having a play-centred time with mum. I also think children should not have to attain good reading, spelling and comprehension levels before they move higher up in school years, Dr Ndambuki observes.
Teaching a five-year old child to read and write can dent their interest in books later on, according to Lilian Katz, a professor of education at Illinois University. “ It can be seriously damaging for children who see themselves as inept at reading too early. Boys are particularly vulnerable when rushed into reading too soon,” she says in a paper, Calming First Day Kinder- garten Anxiety.
In most European countries, children usually start formal education at the age of six or seven, rather than three to five. Finland has the best education- al outcomes in the EU; it not only boasts of a high level of income equality but also has the highest age for beginning formal education—which is seven, a full three years later than many children in Kenya.
Kenya National Parents and Teachers Association chairman
Nathan Barasa says today’s parents are actually running away from their responsibility of mentoring and bringing up children.
Session paper number 14 of 2012 recommends that children begin school from five years for baby class, then proceed to nursery the next year before entering Class One at seven years. At this time the mind of a child is developed enough to grasp basic concepts, Barasa explains.
“Why are we so desperate in this country to push our children to school and turn them into mini- adults? Kids need to be kids,” said Barasa.
He adds that four-year-olds are far too young to go to school. Nearer to six would be better. Some cannot cope at such a young age and mixing them with those who are a few months older is not fair and puts pressure on them.
“It’s time for a rethink back to when things did work, when mums had plenty of time to bond at home and children actually had a play based home learning environment, with a bit of play school near school age,” Barasa said.