Preschools building roots for the future
In the town of Haffouz in Tunisia
“I like learning. Here is even better than home. When I go home, I tell my parents that I’m happy learning, and that I’m good at painting.”
In the town of Haffouz, set amid rural environs in Tunisia’s central Kairouan province, a brightly colored Early Childhood Education Reference Center sits on a side street. Children’s voices giggling and singing can be heard from the outside. Within, in a big room with children’s artwork pinned on the walls, kids in red smock uniforms work in groups around small tables on art projects, putting materials together into little sculptures.
When asked what she likes about the center, Loujayna Addeli, 4, said, “I like games,” and added with a little smile, “I like learning. Here is even better than home. When I go home, I tell my parents that I’m happy learning, and that I’m good at painting.”
A little boy, Yousef Khtatfi, 4 years old, chimed in sheepishly, “I like playing with my friends. I like singing. I want to keep learning here—I don’t want to go to school yet!” Then Yousef spontaneously began softly singing a song in Standard Arabic about the different body parts, which he had learned at the Center.
The Reference Center in Haffouz is a model preschool set up with UNICEF support thanks to funding from the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation and the EU Delegation to Tunisia, amongst others. UNICEF advocates for quality early learning services for all children in Tunisia, particularly those in rural areas and from vulnerable families. Preschool education is important in developing positive social skills among young children, like teamwork, creative expression, communication skills, organization, and others. It also provides intellectual stimulation for children to prepare them to enter the formal schooling system and has an impact on the child’s entire education pathway. And preschool education at the Center gives an opportunity for parents and educators to collaborate more closely on their children’s growth towards a healthy, happy and productive future.
In Tunisia, 1 in every 2 children aged 3-5 years old is enrolled in pre-school, but there are large disparities: in the rural areas only 1 in 4 children attend pre-school, and only 1 in 6 children whose parents are poor go to preschool.
The Reference Center in Haffouz is a pilot center, following the highest international standards.
“This Center is connected to the Tunisian Federation for Social Solidarity, in cooperation with UNICEF,” said Oumayma Mabmoum, director of the Center, “Which is all about helping those in need. So families that have extremely limited means are the priority. They sign their kids up for a small fee, 30 dinars ($10,50 USD), 15 dinars, and in some cases for free.”
Oumayma spoke about the conditions some of the children come from.
“Some of the families only make a little money, some don’t work at all. Many have government cards that make them eligible for free healthcare. But there are other families here who are local state employees or teachers. They bring their kids here because they like how we work with children.”
“It used to be that the kindergartens and preschools in Haffouz were too expensive for these families so they couldn’t let their kids go to preschool. Once our Center was established, we brought these families’ children in.”
She went on, “The parents bring their children here, and our instructors partner with them and communicate with them to improve the parents’ role in the child’s education, in the Center and when the child goes home. And if the parents need things, like a doctor or psychologist for their kids, we bring them to the families.”
Oumayma said that the center follows international standards to the letter.
“Before the Center opened, we the staff took a training on international standards in preschool education. We follow the correct pedagogy. We just go according to the educational norms that were taught to us so that the kids integrate with their classes, learn well, and are happy.”
Wafa, one of the preschool instructors, who gave only her first name, took a moment out from a lively, giggle-filled painting class with children to talk about the Center and the benefits of preschool education.
“The most important thing kids learn here is sharing, communication, and how to cooperate in activities with their friends. This prepares them to go into a school classroom later on. Without this, kids will reject the new school environment, and this will negatively impact their learning and their own psychology.”
Wafa went on to list activities kids engage in at the center: painting, dance, theater, singing, craft making, and more.
“And we help parents to continue the educational process at home. So when their kids come back from the Center and say, ‘Mom, we did a play today about the Cat and the Mouse,’ the parents know how to keep acting out a little play with the kids at home, to keep the kids’ brains active.”
Ghazi, whose daughter Abrar comes to the Center, talked about the benefits of the preschool environment.
“The child gets to see a new environment outside of the home, and his or her parents get some time off from taking care of the kids. When the child comes in and sees colors, hears music, he’s stimulated and happy. He learns to socialize with the other little children. And this promotes positive feelings that reflect beneficially on the family.”
Lamia, his wife, who is herself a schoolteacher, praised the quality of attention the teachers give to the kids.
“In most preschools, the teachers use a lot of media, like movies or smartphones to distract the kids. Here, they don’t. Every time Abrar comes home I feel that she’s learned something new. And I have even learned things from the teachers here—like breastfeeding techniques, and how to talk to Abrar.”
Abdennasser Saoudi, whose daughter Rawan has been coming to the Center for three months, said he’s seen a big improvement in Rawan.
While before she was terribly shy, now Abdennasser said, “I see an improvement in how she talks and communicates. She comes home and excitedly tells me about the friends she’s made at the Center, and the dancing or drawing or singing she did.”
Andrea Senatori, Director of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation - Tunis Regional Office, a primary funder of the Center in Haffouz, as well as in the capital, Tunis, and in the province of Jendouba, talked about how they supported this work concretely.
“Sustaining early childhood development means targeting the roots of the future Tunisia and ensuring that these roots will be standing strong notwithstanding the adverse circumstances they may face. Supporting early childhood education ensures that learning, understanding and being capable to effectively make your own choices are possible for all children of Tunisia, including the most vulnerable ones.”
Speaking on the severe challenges to positive early childhood development which the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, he believed the challenges of the pandemic proved the necessity of preschool education.
“COVID-19 restrictions gave us very tangible examples of how kids, especially at very young age, need sociality, care for schooling and learning, and suffer if the pandemic circumstances do not allow them to progress intellectually and socially.”
Aude Galli, Education Officer at the EU Delegation to Tunisia, added: “Over the past years, the EU in Tunisia, through its EMORI program, has been supporting the government and UNICEF in its effort to scale up access to pre-primary education. Investing in high-quality early childhood development programmes and pre-primary education is one of the best ways of giving Tunisian children the groundwork they need to succeed at school, especially for disadvantaged children, by addressing the issues of regional, socio-economic or gender disparities in the country.”
Oumayma, the Center’s director, said the Center in Haffouz is just the beginning. Tunisia needs to create more places like this for children, and she would be happy to help others to learn just how to do that.
“If another preschool is going to open elsewhere, bring the teachers here. We’ll show them how we run the Center. They can watch how our teachers work, and we’ll show them the pedagogy we use. We can teach them about our experience.”