Opening the magic box
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Opening the magic box

Unicef is helping rebuild childhoods damaged by flooding in the Deep South

Opening the magic box
Toys and learning tools donated by Unicef.

Hayatee Samuh vividly remembers when her nephew started to cry and ask for toys as they relocated to a nearby emergency shelter after floods hit the Deep South in late December. He repeatedly asked if they could rescue the toys or move back to live in the house.

"I felt so sorry for him but didn't know how to react when he asked where all the toys had gone," said Hayatee, still emotional. The 22-year-old aunt had been taking care of her nephew since her sister moved to Malaysia for work last year, and she was home with the boy and his sister when the floods hit.

During the last week of 2023, the three southernmost provinces were affected by the heaviest flood in decades. Thousands of homes, dozens of schools and numerous religious sites were flooded. A few affected families were fortunate to live on the 2nd floor of their home so they avoided the worst, but thousands of others including Hayatee's family had to relocate to nearby emergency shelters. Children were kept out of school for days, and in some cases, weeks.

Hayatee Samuh, centre.

ECD officer Tinsiri Siribodhi shows Suhaida Satapo how to use learning materials.

The floods destroyed toys, books and learning materials, and while some were recovered, others were lost forever. With limited resources, parents and teachers focused on repairs first. Fixing the damage to schools took priority over buying new learning materials. Unfortunately, this left many children without learning materials and toys to play with -- an essential part of the development process -- for weeks. Unicef stepped in to meet the needs.

Almost 1,000 "Magic Boxes" containing animal puzzles, shape toys, colourful balls, building blocks, colouring books, crayons and storybooks were distributed to vulnerable families and Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centers affected by flooding in Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Phatthalung.

Hayatee's family was overjoyed to receive a Magic Box from Unicef Thailand. The boxes came with parental guidelines on how to use the learning materials and toys to best help children develop their skills.

"The kids were so excited that they could hardly wait to unpack the box," Hayatee said, recalling the reaction of the children when they saw their Magic Boxes. "We used to have simple plastic toys, but never had a storybook before," she added, smiling.

According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2022 (Thailand MICS 2022), few children read books at home and the situation is worse in southern provinces. In Narathiwat, only 13% of children have books at home, while just around one-fifth of children in Satun, Songkhla and Pattani provinces have books at home. The national average is 36%.

The Unicef ECD team bonds with children in their home.

A teacher and children at Ban Yae Early Childhood Development Centre in Yala unpack a Magic Box.

A lack of toys and books affects learning opportunities for young children. The MICS survey also found that learning skills are a major concern for children living in the Deep South. While most children in these areas attend primary school, only 15% attending Grade 2 and 3 in Narathiwat have basic reading skills, far lower than the national average of 47%. The rates are also extremely low in Pattani and Yala provinces at 17% and 27%.

Unicef's Early Childhood Development (ECD) team recently visited Yala and had an opportunity to talk with teachers and parents who received the Magic Boxes. ECD specialist Napat Phisanbut had a chance to play with children and show Hayatee how to play with the animal building block set and colourful plastic balls with the children in her care, and explain how they help develop a child's coordination, which improves brain development.

"These toys have been carefully selected for age-appropriate development. Some of the items help build small muscles, others help them learn numbers and colours," Napat told Hayatee. Suhaida Satapo, who received the Magic Box in Yala, said her children enjoy building a car, house or bridge with toys. She was also happy to receive new storybooks because they lost all they had in the flood last year.

The Unicef ECD team not only helped parents and caregivers like Suhaida become acquainted with toys and learning tools, but also taught them how to utilise them effectively to aid children's learning and development. Parents should engage children while playing by asking them about the reasons behind their choices in building a bridge or car with Lego pieces, or reading books to them to encourage brain development and strengthen their relationship.

ECD specialist Napat Phisanbut at Ban Sato School.

Children at Ban Sato School enjoy puzzles from the Magic Box.

Suhaida was delighted to gain a better understanding of how to utilise these toys and tools effectively. She particularly relished playing with Lego alongside her children and committed to spending more time playing with them.

Before concluding their trip, Unicef ECD experts also visited ECD centres and kindergartens affected by the floods to provide guidance to teachers and children to effectively use Magic Boxes.

Unicef's team is hopeful Magic Boxes will serve not only as a source of entertainment for children who lost their toys, but also as new learning material. As Napat said: "We believe that the Magic Box is a crucial resource for parents to help their children learn, build their skills and go on to reach their full potential."

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