In the family apartment, on the top floor of a residential building in Novi Sad, Serbia, architect Aca Stojanovic recalls how he questioned his own structural stability when his son Milutin was born.
“When Milutin was born, it was something new, something unknown,” Aca says with a smile. “As a man, I’d never had contact with a small baby, never took care of one. We relaxed after the visiting nurse’s first home visit. We realized that this isn’t something to be scared of. Now, six months later, I do everything! I bathe the baby, I feed him, change him. Everything!”
In Serbia, visiting nurses visit the family a number of times: once during pregnancy, five times after birth, twice during the first year of life and once each in the second and fourth years. If there are challenges or difficulties, they’ll come for additional visits. Lenka Tadin Stojanovic, Milutin’s mom and Aca’s wife, recalls the first meeting with their visiting nurse, Danijela Pokrajac. She remembers the nurse saying that she would come more often if necessary and that she was always available by phone, which boosted Lenka’s confidence.
“The visiting nurse advised us to talk to Milutin about everything we’re doing with him. When dressing him, to explain ‘first one arm, then the other’. We simply talked about our activities and we also started paying attention and listening to him. Now we can communicate, not verbally, but we always know exactly what he’s telling us. When he’s hungry or sleepy,” Lenka explains.
Being a parent is one of the most beautiful jobs in the world. In Serbia, fathers can take parental leave to take care of their baby. However, the number of fathers who actually do that is low. In fact, only 3 percent of fathers are actively involved in caring for their baby.
Aca and Lenka agree that time stops when you’re with your child, and tiredness disappears. Milutin’s dad also observes how quickly his son is learning through play.
“You can see the progress: at first, he was barely able to reach or hold objects, but then he’d reached for them, moved towards them. Then he was passing objects between hands, and it was easier for him with each day. This all happens through playing with the baby,” explains Aca.
The right to play is the right of every child. Not only is this fun for children, it also satisfies their huge hunger for knowledge. Millions of brain cells and connections in the brain are established every second during the first few months of a baby’s life, a pace never repeated again. Lenka knows this, and that’s why both Aca and she try to do everything through play.
“Everything we do, we do through play. I don’t even know how I would do it any other way. When we dress him, when we bathe him, we always sing, we always play. It’s the best way for him to learn. Every day he amazes me by learning new things. His motor skills are developing. We aren’t aware of the things we do through play, we just suddenly see his progress,” Lenka says.
In times of crises, such as the recent COV-19 pandemic, many families are under stress. However, playing with children, learning together, and setting routines can help both parents and children cope. Aca says that he has developed a new relationship with his son because he’s had more time.
“During the coronavirus pandemic, I spent more time at home, and I was able to start feeding Milutin. I liked that, so I’m still doing it today. I feed him at least one meal,” says Aca.
Lenka says she is proud when she sees that Aca knows it’s time for Milutin to eat or when he knows how to prepare meals. She also says that her partner’s collaboration means a lot to her in different ways — not only so she can catch her breath, but also emotionally. She says it’s clear their son is happy because there are two people taking care of him.
The visiting nurse who visits this family, Danijela Pokrajac, says that a strong parental union and a father’s involvement in caring for a child from birth are crucial. Children who grow up in such an environment can develop at a faster rate, have greater confidence, feel that they are loved and cared for, and later in life can be more successful and go on to build quality relationships with others.
“Both parents share equal responsibility for the upbringing of their child, and they also share the joy,” says Danijela.
UNICEF and the LEGO Foundation are working together to help parents and guardians use the power of play to give children the best start in life. There are emerging studies that indicate a correlation between a high-quality early childhood and greater success in the cognitive sphere; but benefits also extend to future health outcomes. Play is a good way to acquire skills, as well as to develop curiosity, cooperation, and creativity.
Fathers don’t have to wait for Father’s Day to practice playful parenting, because every day is Father’s Day.
Vladimir Banic is a seasoned journalist who has covered many stories for UNICEF.