20 October 2022
Supporting families as 'first teachers' is the work of Tongan-based initiative Uluaki Faiako. One year on from its launch, founder Manu Vehikite is well on her way to achieving her vision: to help Tongan families build a strong foundation for their children.
Once a week, Manu Vehikite's home in Tonga becomes a hive of activity. Children laugh and play games alongside their parents. They have kai, sing songs, and sit in a circle to read stories.
The sessions are part of the Uluaki Faiako educational initiative, which means "first teacher".
As its name suggests, Uluaki Faiako aims to empower Tongan families to create a rich and nurturing environment for their children, to help them learn and develop to their full potential.
Sowing the seed
Having spent nearly 10 years working as part of an early intervention programme helping children with disabilities, Manu couldn’t shake the feeling that more needed to be done.
"What I noticed was that often the rest of the children – without disabilities – weren’t getting the attention they needed."
As a qualified early childhood educator, she felt she could help families to understand the importance of nurturing their baby's brain development, prior to them attending school.
So, early last year she resigned from her job, volunteering her time to get Uluaki Faiako up and running.
"In Tongan culture when you say parenting it means looking after the children, feeding them, changing their nappies – all those basic, essential things. But, there’s a whole lot of brain development that goes on in the early years, and so Uluaki Faiako is about teaching parents different ways that they can nurture that."
Learning about how quickly babies' brains develop is often a surprise, says Manu.
"With that understanding, the parents start to change the way that they bring up their children. For example, they go from thinking the children are naughty and that they don’t listen, to understanding that their behaviour is part of their development... part of them growing up."
It takes everyone, the whole family
Manu operates with little resource. Occasionally she receives donations – things like toys and books – but going forward she's hoping to secure funding so she can employ additional staff.
With more time on her hands, she’ll be able to help more families by visiting them in their own homes – many are currently unable to attend playgroup because they don’t have access to transport.
"In Tonga we have a family-orientated culture – so it’s important to involve everyone, to help build the awareness of what Uluaki Faiako is trying to do."
Manu says she’s already observed a big shift in some of the families she’s helped support.
"You can tell the parents are happier, you see happier children... everything is more positive."