Stellenbosch University: LEGO grant helps research enrich parenting in the digital age

Stellenbosch University (SU) is to benefit from part of an £11 million (approximately R215 million) grant from the LEGO Foundation for international research aimed at developing free parenting support throughout the world which could be a game changer in parenting.

The grant has been given to the Global Parenting Initiative (GPI), led by the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom (UK) with partner universities and organisations around the world including in South Africa, Canada, Malaysia, Philippines, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, and the UK.

The co-investigators at SU are Professors Mark Tomlinson and Sarah Skeen, co-directors of the Institute for Life Course Health Research (ILCHR), which is based in the Department of Global Health in SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

The ILCHR will receive $1.5 million (about R23 million) of the grant to expand its work in evidence-based, playful parenting support for the international parenting initiative.

Some years back, Tomlinson, together with a group of academics from a range of institutions, started an organisation called Parenting for Life, which provides open access help for lifelong parenting. This group will use the LEGO funding to develop and test a digital parenting intervention called ParentApp for Kids in Tanzania. The app provides support to caregivers of children, starting from pregnancy up to nine years of age. Furthermore they will also develop software that automates the scoring of caregiver-child interactions.

In an interview Tomlinson said he and his team are excited about the funding. “Parenting for Life, does not charge, so this funding will provide the resources to allow us to take what we know and extend it in a number of exciting directions – digital, automated coding and there are other different applications being explored in other parts of this grant. It is amazing in terms of what it allows us to do. It will be a game-changer.”

Tomlinson said the grant will enable his team to build on work already done in the parenting field.

Since its inception, Parenting For Life has developed a range of parenting programmes, among them are Thula Sana, aimed at improving mother-infant interaction and attachment, and an intervention called Shared Reading, which is also about interaction, child attention and child language development, and which can be used with children from the age of six months.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic we did a trial to test if the Shared Reading system would work in a digital format, in Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia. Virtual groups using the Whatsapp platform were formed and caregivers received books, videos and parenting information on their phone. We showed during these trials that this concept did work,” Tomlinson said.

“The LEGO grant will enable us to put all the programmes, from Thula Sana to Shared Reading and other systems relating to middle-childhood onto an app. This means the app could potentially be used by parents who wouldn’t normally be able to use these programmes. We will put this already-tested programme onto an app for a mobile phone and test it in Tanzania. Once that particular app has been tested and, if it works, we hope to scale it up.”

In a separate project, Tomlinson and his team will build on a pilot study which they started with partners in the UK, where algorithms and computer-based coding are used to measure interactions between caregivers and children.

“It is normally very time consuming to measure these interactions, usually involving recording the interactions on video and then coding the tapes and then comparing scores among researchers. In this study, we are going to try and extend what we have already done in this area, with the computer doing the coding of the interactions.”

Tomlinson, who has a passion for child psychology and infant mental health, and who, after qualifying as a psychologist, spent time working in a home for children in Cape Town, said there are many children in the world who have “never had much of an experience of a parent or caregiver holding them in their mind”.

“The idea of someone holding you in mind even when not with you is something many kids take for granted,” he added, saying that parenting interventions are beneficial for the whole world.

“It is these kinds of grants that are potentially globally transformative. It is now up to us to make that happen.”