Small changes that lead to a big difference
Before the national mandatory standards for preschool education are fully in place, to make a direct impact, educators in Georgia have to be creative and start with small changes.
Red, blue and green lines twist and turn from the gate till the entrance. A group of preschoolers laugh, scream, and chuckle, while they try to follow the lines. In another corner, several kids can be heard encouraging each other while they’re having a tricycle match on the track painted on the playground’s asphalt ground. And in yet another corner, a group plays hopscotch underneath large old pine trees in the yard.
With a bit of faded paint, a crack in the outside wall here and there, and tree roots pushing the asphalt playground up here and there, preschool #76 in the Orkhevi district in Tbilisi, looks like most preschools in the city from the outside. But unlike several others, step-by-step, they’re able to improve the environment, despite it being rather expensive, and the municipality's budget not being exhaustive.
Only one year ago, the L-shaped building with a lush green courtyard home to curvy oak, didn’t have games painted on the asphalt. “All our 400 kids were trying to get on the two slides in the yard,” preschool education methodology expert Lali Gochiashvili explains, “large parts of the yard were left unused.”
Lali started working as a methodologist at this preschool in September 2018, after the Georgian government adopted national mandatory standards and technical regulations on pre-school education. According to the new standards, for which UNICEF provided technical support to be developed, preschools should offer child-centred education in a safe and child-friendly environment, supporting child development in response to a child’s interests and needs.
Lali, together with several others, was trained by experts in preschool education, to work with preschools to implement the new teaching standards in the schools and work with the preschool educators to change their approach in the classroom - before the educators will receive training themselves this summer. UNICEF has supported Ministry of Education and Science, Culture and Sports in developing training modules, methodological guidelines and supportive visual resources to help educators build up competences for putting standards into practice. “UNICEF has supported the Government of Georgia in developing the national preschool standards in line with best international practices. It is crucial that the process is further advanced to ensure that standards are implemented and all young children in Georgia benefit from high quality inclusive early and preschool education,” says UNICEF Representative in Georgia Dr Ghassan Khalil.
According to the new standards, the municipalities should allocate the required budget to build new preschools, rehabilitate existing pre-school institutions, and improve the quality and inclusion in preschool education. Full scale implementation of the standards requires: increasing investments in intensive training of preschool educators, directors and other key personnel, ensuring continuous professional development for the staff, decreasing number of children per classroom and ensuring access to diverse educational and play materials to stimulate children’s learning and development. Some of these things take a lot of time to be fully accomplished, but some can be achieved by small steps taken by educators themselves. And that is what Lali, and some other preschool education experts, have set out to do.
Walking through the building, the changes are clear. The soft, warm coloured walls have different kinds of artworks made by the kids. Near the classroom of 3 to 4-year-olds, the walls have animal cut outs colored by the kids, and farm animals made out of cardboard boxes - including a fierce cow with a white rubber glove as udder. “Their theme right now is animals, so we made these together,” educator Nato Gurgenidze, a professionally trained elementary teacher who has been at the preschool for over nine years, enthusiastically says while the kids dressed in green run past her towards the classroom. Today is frog day, and they asked the parents through a colorful messaging board on the wall to dress their kids up in green. The kids sing songs about frogs, color and cut out frogs, and listen to a story about a frog.
In this class there are 32 kids, but the maximum amount a group can have is 60 before a preschool can request funding to have the group split up in two. Each class has one educator and one assistant educator. And it can become quite a challenge to have such a large group kids do something simple, but necessary, as washing their hands before lunch without stress and chaos. This is where Lali’s work comes in.
“How can we make mundane tasks fun? I come in, analyze the situation, and propose a method that can help. With washing hands, we came up with a song and a dance towards the sink,” Lali explains. Nato, the educator, says it has made her work a lot less stressful.
One of the first changes Lali made was on the playground, allowing the kids to be creative in play, and do more than wait in a long line to go of a slide. But Lali also worked closely with the educators to section their classrooms into different zones: a place for art corner, a place for building and construction, a reading and quiet zone, a board game corner, a dramatic play centre and more. Next to the songs, this sectioned classroom is another method to create a creative, happy, and organized environment where the kids can choose what they want to do.
“The kids themselves go to the quiet corner to read when they are a bit hyper,” Nato says, adding that she hadn’t expected this little change to have such a major impact on the classroom.
While the school gets quiet as the kids go for a nap in their colorful bunk beds, Lali reiterates the educators’ impression, that while some things may take time - such as larger renovations, major trainings, small inexpensive changes can have a major impact as well.