Learning by Observation: Children and Hand Washing in Periurban Cotonou

armand picby Armand A. AGUIDI, WASHplus Coordinator in Benin

Although they are important beneficiaries of hand washing awareness raising campaigns, children are not directly targeted by community mobilizers unless the activities take place at schools. Household-based activities target primarily, and sometimes exclusively, mothers or children’s  caretakers. In fact when children attend these awareness-raising activities geared toward their parents, they are not always welcome. The organizers, and also the parents, don’t hesitate to chase away these “troublemakers” so attention can be focused on the adults.

However, my observation of community mobilization activities in periurban districts of Cotonou calls attention to the missed opportunities of this adult-centered approach.

Setting up a Hand Washing Device in Enagnon

During a tippy tap training organized at a youth center in Enagnon, one of the WASHplus intervention neighborhoods of Cotonou, two things captured the participant’s attention: demonstration of the various hand washing devices and the group of children gathered together to follow the activities. The gathering was particularly large during the fixed hand washing device testing, and these children attentively followed the way in which the trainees washed their hands. They were very disappointed when, at the end of the exercise, the device was moved from the doorway to the interior of the training center, preventing any access to it. The situation changed when one of the participants asked that the hand washing device be displayed again by the doorway and left within the children’s reach. We then observed the children moving automatically as a group toward the hand washing device.


We may be tempted to attribute part of the children’s interest to curiosity, but we must nevertheless also recognize that this attitude demonstrates the potential for flexibility, maneuverability, and willingness of children, all important elements in behavior change activities.

Later in the day the same afflux of children was observed watching a hand washing with soap demonstration for mothers. Although they lacked permission from the hygiene promoters to participate in the demonstration, these children attentively followed the actions and gestures of the adults from start to finish. Imagine our surprise when we passed by the same house a few minutes later and saw the children gathered around the water giving each other a lesson in washing their hands with water and soap. They were inspired by the advice given to their parents a few minutes earlier. 


Children Imitate and Learn

We observed that children gather around each time hygiene promoters visit households to present information. Often the adults chase them away or prevent them from having access to the tools utilized. But driven by curiosity, they resist in many cases and find ways to overcome their exclusion. They attentively observe the adults’ actions, they memorize and imitate them, and instruct themselves at the same time as the adults. Therefore, without knowing it, and also without meaning to, the hygiene promoters train both parents and children, killing two birds with one stone. The impact is thus amplified and increases in value.


These comments on the hygiene promoters relate primarily to the fact that no room is made for children within household behavior change activities. School seems to be the only environment for children to learn about these activities. In reality, children are also available when they are at home and must be included in, or at a minimum tolerated during, sessions held with their parents. Children should, from now, be considered as direct beneficiaries of household awareness-raising activities, and be invited to the household hand washing sessions in the same way as their parents. For this learning by observation, no particular effort is needed except to hold the sessions in places that facilitate children’s access.

In educational psychology, we say that learning by observation and imitation necessitate the presence of a model (in this case, the hygiene promoter) who demonstrates a behavior, and a trainee (in this case, the child) who observes. The model doesn’t necessarily have the intention of teaching; it is the trainee who decides to learn from the model.

Children Look for Models

In every society, human beings need a course of action, a model to follow, people to refer to. This need for a model is even more pronounced in children.

Where hand washing ins concerned, children also look to their parents as models. Parents must tell themselves that children want to see their parents adopt the promoted behaviors not just hear about them. When hand washing becomes a regular habit of the parents, the behavior will be reproduced by the children with significant benefits to everyone’s well-being.


Children are Information Carriers and Awareness Raisers

Beyond the fact that children reproduce their parents’ gestures and in this way ensure the adoption of desired behaviors, children can also serve as information carriers to their families and with their friends. It is not rare to see children correcting their parents. In objecting, “Oh mom, you told us that we must always wash our hands before eating, but you didn’t do it,” the child points out the parent’s responsibility to model correct behavior and reminds her that her lesson was well absorbed by her child. Didn’t the poet say, “Each child that we teach is a person we win?”

It follows that children must not be expelled or excluded from household awareness-raising sessions. They must not be barred because in raising awareness with their mothers, we target them indirectly. Hygiene promoters will benefit from accepting them and letting them express themselves.

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