2008: Creating a better future: Early childhood education and development
Dressed in their Sunday best, Mercy, age five, and Bridget, six, are ready to recite the poem that they have practiced all week:
“Education! Education! Mum and Dad, send me to school! We are like flowers! For flowers to grow, they need water!”
Their message is heard loud and clear in a room filled to the rafters with their classmates, teachers, and caregivers, for even at their tender ages these are girls full of confidence and are keen to learn.
They are also rather special to be learning so early in life because according to the Ministry of Education, pre-school education in Zambia is an exceptional opportunity. While early childhood care and development in Zambia may be exceptional, it is not necessarily new to the country.
In some areas, grassroots organizations have partnered with communities to form community-based pre-schools, like the one where Mercy and Bridget spend their mornings in Kabwe, located in Zambia’s Central Province.
At the Nakoli Early Child Care Development (ECCD) Centre, some 50 pre-schoolers aged three- to 6-years-old play educational games and interact under the supervision of community caregivers.
“The caregivers are the nerve center of our activities because they are on the ground,” says Rinos Simbulo, Executive Director of the Mulumbo Early Childhood Care and Development Foundation (MECCOF).
Since 2000, MECCOF, with the support of UNICEF, has set about opening numerous pre-schools like the Nakoli ECCD centre. The schools are far from institutional – rather they are rooted in community-based caregiving and ownership.
Michael Banda, UNICEF Education Specialist, helps to design and implement programmes with local organizations like MECCDF. He understands all too well the difficulties faced by the educational system in Zambia.
“UNICEF has helped fund training and the production of materials used for preparing community caregivers and outreach workers in the community-based schools,” says Banda. “But these communities need more support and more resources, so that they are continuously motivated and supported in their efforts.”
While not institutional in nature, community-based schools are highly organized and effective. Beyond Zambia, community-based schools have proven effective in other nations, such as Ethiopia, Japan, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. Equally significant are the recent case studies that explore and validate the crucial role that early childhood care and education plays in the cognitive and social growth of children. Banda and Simbulo say that teachers in Government schools have seen a marked difference between children who attend community-based preschools and those who do not.
Children coming out of pre-schools are often well-behaved, socially interact with teachers and peers on advanced levels, and are literate – unlike the majority of children in Zambia who enter grade one at age 7.
The key, says Simbulo, is designing programmes that serve the social, emotional, cognitive, and educational needs of young, developing minds, largely through educational-oriented play and creative learning techniques.
Among the many difficulties facing community-based pre-schools today is space.
At the Nakoli ECCD centre, over 100 children are expected to learn in a one-room schoolhouse. They are split into two morning sessions, but 50 young children in one room is far from optimal.
“It is not easy on us,” explains Winfreda Lupupa, one of the centre’s caregivers and a mother herself. “We are volunteers, all of us, and we need support, too. We spend more time here than at home. We need better incentives so that we can continue to support our own children while we work here in the community.”