Early Learning Centres in Azerbaijan: Developing minds, friendships and communities

It’s Monday morning in a classroom of school 280 in the small town of Hovsan, just half an hour drive from Baku.

Elaine Holder
Educator playing with children at the Early Learning Centre.
UNICEF Azerbaijan/Bell/2018
04 October 2018

It’s Monday morning in a classroom of school 280 in the small town of Hovsan, just half an hour drive from Baku. The lesson begins with the teacher and children greeting each other in a circle. One could be mistaken for thinking this was an ordinary class of schoolchildren. The students, however, are pre-schoolers aged between 3 and 5 years old. This class is part of a new initiative called the Early Learning Centre programme, conceived by the Institute of Education jointly with UNICEF.

Early Learning Centres provide a structured, but play-orientated learning environment, aiding a child’s intellectual, social and emotional development. Samaye Madatova has been teaching the pre-schoolers since the programme started. She is very positive about the impact it will have on the children’s development, “I think this is a great project, the children will begin learning here and this will prepare them for primary school.”  The programme has been underway since October 2017 at 50 locations and expanded to 50 more centres in 2018, in a country with a very low preschool enrollment rate of 16.7 per cent of 1-5 years’ olds.

“The students also have the opportunity to with other children and adults, this helps them to communicate their thoughts in a more positive and constructive manner,” Madatova adds.

Children playing outside at the Early Learning Centre.
UNICEF Azerbaijan/Bell/2018
Children playing outside at the Early Learning Centre.

Educators involved in the programme were selected by the Ministry of Education and attended a specially designed pre-school education training programme. Vefa Shukurova formerly taught Azerbaijan language and literature before being chosen for this project. “At first I was apprehensive, but I have found the whole experience very interesting. It’s a very important programme and I really enjoy helping the children develop in this way,” she explains.

Students attend pre-school twice a week for twohours. Elnara Aliyeva and her daughter Nuray have a one hour journey to the Early Learning Centre, which is located at the primary school in Hovsan. “In total, it takes four hours of our day, but it is worth the time and effort. My child learns a lot here, I can’t give the same level of early development at home.”

Play session at the Early Education Centre.
UNICEF Azerbaijan/Bell/2018
Play session at the Early Education Centre.

At the Early Learning Centre, every parent interviewed remarked upon how their child’s language and social skills had improved since starting the programme. Samira Heydarovacomments on her daughter’s progress “She started talking very late, when she was already 3 years old. We weren’t able to send her to kindergarten, so being given the opportunity for early education has been great. Her speech improved dramatically and now she doesn’t stop talking.”  Aygun Hajiyeva explains how the programme has made a huge difference to how her son Nihat interacts with others. “My child was shy and nervous. This has been like a psychological rehabilitation for him, it has had a positive effect on his well-being. He spends time with other kids and doesn’t want to go home at the end of the lesson.”

Some children adapt quickly, but others need their parents to be present at least for some period of time – so parents may stay during the lesson. One mother exclaimed “I actually enjoy sitting in on the class! I can learn things too, for example facts about our country and the environment. We also pick up useful tips to help our children at home.” The teachers spend some of their lesson time advising the parents on child development methods, as Samaye Madatova explains “We give the parents training on how they can help their children to develop at home. We recommend alternative ways to set rules and interact effectively with their children and we give them small tasks so they can continue what they learn in the centre at home.”  

“In rural areas, where access to services and information is limited and many families have low socio-economic status, the environment for childhood development is not very favourable. There are limited opportunities for pre-school children to be exposed to any kind of development, be it cultural, educational or social. For us it was crucial that we find a way to reach those children,” says UNICEF Education Specialist Leyla Hassanova.

Children play a traditional Azerbaijani game at the Early Learning Centre
UNICEF Azerbaijan/Bell/2018
Children play a traditional Azerbaijani game at the Early Learning Centre in Hovsan village, Baku.

The Early Learning Centre in Hovsan has become a social hub for many parents. Bringing children to pre-school gives parents a chance to socialise and network with others. Many mother’s confessed that they did not have much of a social life away from home and family. Aygun Aliyeva states “Most of us are housewives and we didn’t do much away from our homes. Our children have made friends through the Early Learning Centre and so have we.”

Creating a supportive community culture has benefits beyond personal friendships, “It’s a good way to stimulate local communities, to make people more responsible for what is happening around them,” says Hassanova, explaining the potential of such programmes to engage communities in other areas.  

There has been a great deal of interest and demand for the programme from local communities. However, there is a bigger demand than can currently be supplied. In rural communities, only 16 per cent of children have access to pre-school education, while in Baku the figure is much higher at 37 per cent. “Hopefully in a few years we can talk about a significant increase in the number of centres. I hope we can at least double or triple this number,” she says. 

The Ministry of Education will continue strengthening practices in 50 community-based Early Learning Centres supported by UNICEF.  Additionally, 50 more centres around the country will be established by the Government funded by the State budget, the European Union and UNICEF.