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Building a foundation for learning

By Hema Balasundaram

A community pre-school teacher goes the extra mile for disadvantaged children

KAPAR, Malaysia, 8 September 2013 – Lata Rajoo's passion is education. And her mission is to provide it for disadvantaged children. She works at a car wash to make a living, but spends the better part of her day using much of her own money to run Tadika Senyuman Manja, a pre-school that caters mainly to children from low-income families in Kapar, some 45km from Kuala Lumpur. She starts her day using a friend's van to give rides to students who cannot afford their own transportation.

"The reason I started this pre-school is to provide education for poor children, because I had a hard time getting the education that I wanted. I was very interested in studies but could hardly afford it – it was so tough for me to even buy a book. I depended on and hoped for help from others. Since I can afford it now, I wanted to provide education for children," says Lata.

She stretches her resources with the help of an assistant teacher. Together, they find creative ways to make learning fun and fulfilling for the children. She draws on 27 years' of teaching experience to tailor lessons to the children's language background, home lives, and individual needs. It has been difficult finding affordable, context-sensitive learning materials in Tamil – the children's mother tongue – so Lata makes her own using available materials such as old boxes, colour pencils, raffia string, and even ice-cream sticks.

"I love to come to school and learn. I have a lot of friends here and I really like all the games," says 6-year-old Pavitheran, whose three elder siblings aged 8 to 12 previously attended the pre-school. What happens here is fundamental for these children. Research shows that children learn best in their mother tongue, especially in their early years, and that children who benefit from good quality early childhood development programs are better prepared for school and more likely to attain a higher level of education.

"Pre-school is very important because that is where they first start learning. The education that my eldest daughter gained in pre-school is still benefitting her today," says Pavitheran's mother Bhavani, who does not have much education herself. To support community pre-school education, UNICEF partnered with the Asian Institute for Early Child Care and Education to provide Lata and other teachers with training to improve their teaching materials and lesson plans.

"This is one of the best starts we can provide children, especially children from low-income communities. It's like a passport – to a better education, and a better beginning. It's a way of breaking the cycle of poverty, that would otherwise go on generation after generation, and instead kick starting something new – a virtuous cycle – that gives children a better chance," says UNICEF Representative to Malaysia, Wivina Belmonte.

For the children at Tadika Senyuman Manja, learning spans many topics, including mathematics, science, three languages, as well as health and hygiene. Today's storytelling session, on how to protect against diseases borne by flies and mosquitoes, has the children captivated. No matter what the lesson, it all adds up to one thing – giving the children a head start so that they can thrive in primary school and beyond.





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