"Though the school closed, they still come"

UNICEF-supported playgrounds have become a second home for children in refugee settlements in Uganda

By Hope M.E. Muzungu
refugees, refugee children, Congo, early childhood development, early childhood learning, early childhood care, ECD, ECCE, Uganda, UNICEF
UNICEF Uganda/2021/Kabuye
08 February 2021

“Number One, Number One where are you? 

Here I am, Here I Am

How do you do?”

Clapping in tune to the song, seven children jump around in a circle, each taking turns to swirl in the middle in response to a corresponding number.  

On the adjacent swings, children gently push one another’s seats while on the monkey bars the seemingly older boys and girls propel themselves forward, while reciting a series of numbers and alphabet letters. 

The school closed in March 2020 along with all other educational institutions in Uganda at the onset of the corona virus disease (COVID-19), but the one-acre playground at Busheka Early Childhood Development (ECD) centre is still filled with songs and sporadic peals of laughter from children aged 2 to 8 years. 

“Though the school closed, they still come”,

Rosette Uwamahoro the lead caregiver at the ECD centre reveals.  

At the time of its closure in March 2020 Busheka ECD centre in Oruchinga Settlement Camp in Isingiro District was home to 86 refugee children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. A few days into the school closure, a few children started showing up at the playground every day just to play. The numbers kept increasing and by February 2021, the playground recorded a daily average of 30 children.

refugees, refugee children, Congo, early childhood development, early childhood learning, early childhood care, ECD, ECCE, Uganda, UNICEF
UNICEF Uganda/2021/Kabuye

Busheka is one of the 27 ECD centres in four refugee settlements in south-western Uganda benefiting from a UNICEF partnership with Right to Play, a child rights-based organisation, aimed at enhancing integrated early childhood development in refugee settlements and host communities in Isingiro, Kamwenge and Kyegegwa districts.  UNICEF funds the provision of indoor and outdoor play materials, capacity building of caregivers, parents and the community, as well as district strengthening in delivery of integrated ECD activities. The funding used by UNICEF for this programme was provided through the US Fund.

Because they keep coming

The three caregivers at Busheka ECD Centre take turns going to the school to check on and supervise the children who come to the playground. Fondly referred to as ‘teacher’, they cluster the children into play groups of 5 to 10 members each, to ensure social distancing and observance of recommended COVID-19 standard operating procedures. 

At the entrance of the centre is a handwashing can with a piece of soap and water. One child vigorously rubs his palms together with soap and water, turns to the back of his hands, between his fingers and under his nails, rinses off with water then he joins his play group at the slide. 

Continued childcare during the COVID-19 lock down

During the COVID-19 lockdown, the caregivers collaborated with village health teams and started a home learning programme that brings together children from three homes into a study group. The caregivers teach parents how to use different items at home such as ropes, sticks and stones for guided learning. 

“The community has adopted a positive attitude towards early childhood learning, which was formerly considered a waste.” Paulah Aryatuha, the Right to Play Project Officer for south western region notes, “There is better adherence to key principles of family and childcare, and more parents are more accepting of play as a learning tool.”

Alexis Biganiro, one of the three caregivers at Busheka explains that initially they taught the children as they would teach adults , but after the training they started incorporating daily routines and competency-based teaching. The ECD centre has become so popular in the settlement that although the curriculum covers 3 to 6-year-olds, even older refugee children who never attended school in their home countries request admission to the centre. 

A 2021 Right to Play report records 480 home visits conducted and 121 caregivers trained since project inception in 2019.

refugees, refugee children, Congo, early childhood development, early childhood learning, early childhood care, ECD, ECCE, Uganda, UNICEF
UNICEF Uganda/2021/Kabuye

School as a second home

During normal school term, classes would run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the rest of the afternoon would be designated for play. After schools were closed in March 2020, the children started arriving in phases at the playground from morning till late afternoon. 

Daphne Mugizi, the UNICEF Uganda Programme Officer for ECD, South Western Region, reveals that beneath the play encounters, an array of channels and pathways are being built in the child’s brain, which are essential to their optimal growth and development. “Play is an essential vehicle through which children develop their imagination, resilience and social skills.” She says.  

After hours of playing at Busheka ECD centre, more children sit at the veranda, their energy seeming to wane until Teacher Rosette calls out; 

“Do you see me?”

“Yes we see you.”

“Then follow me.”

A chain of children in their groups, run after Teacher Rosette, echoing her every move on the slides, through to the swings then on to the open playground. 

Teacher Alexis smiles as he watches the children, concluding that ‘We have become like a second home.”