Early Childhood Development Classrooms
Some days I can’t help but think, “Geez, I’ve taken a heck of a long commute to get to work.” From the moment I wake up underneath my mosquito net to the last moments I lie awake listening to the rain pound on our tin roof, I am conscious of the fact that I have wandered very far away from home for my job with Nuru. Yet, in spite of all the changes in my daily surroundings, there is one thing about Kuria, Kenya that reminds me very much of my hometown in southeast Texas: at almost every bend in the road you are sure to find a church or a school opening its doors for business. At every few kilometers, local family clans have built “home schools” which are attended by the students from a very small geographic location in the district.
Though two schools may be within just a few minutes walking distance from one another, the quality of the classroom infrastructure and school management may vary significantly from school to school. Some schools have beautiful fenced-in compounds with extra rooms for reading and book storage, while other schools cram their entire student population into two or three mud floor rooms with half-built walls and a thatch ceiling.
Yet, although the spectrum of infrastructural development in schools is broad, the state of preschool classrooms is pretty uniformly poor across the board. Like in most places in the world, preschool education has been widely undervalued for a long time here. Only recently has the Kenyan government begun to take active steps towards emphasizing the importance of early childhood development in primary education. Although the government does not formally hire preschool teachers, the ministry of education is working to open more opportunities for teachers to undergo official certification as early childhood educators. In addition, they are focusing on developing a more comprehensive learning curriculum for children under six years old.
Yet, in spite of these efforts, most head teachers and parents continue to regard preschool as nothing more than a babysitting service. As such, most of the preschool facilities in our area are far from conducive for learning, as the schools’ youngest pupils are sequestered to abandoned rooms in neighboring churches or crumbling mud rooms with no windows or desks.
Considering the importance of early childhood development in a student’s later academic success in primary and secondary school, Nuru has decided to target preschools as it first priority in infrastructural development for schools. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve brainstormed with my teammates some pretty wacky ideas for how to make a stellar classroom specifically designed for preschool students. Beyond constructing a traditional classroom with four walls and a blackboard, we’d like to create a space that encourages creative, experiential learning for young children.
If everything goes according to plan, the room will be installed with spinning, dancing, sliding, and twisting gadets in the walls and ceiling. The floors will be painted with images that teach children about the geography of their surroundings. The chairs and tables will be scaled to size so that even the smallest of the students will be able to sit and participate in drawing or reading activities. Everything, from the ground the students walk on to the ceiling over their heads will contribute to their learning experience.
The rooms have a lot of potential. Beyond simply fostering a rich learning environment for young pupils, the classroom project could be a solid first step in changing the general views the community holds about preschool education. We will not be starting this project in every school we work with. Instead, we are linking the new classroom construction to concrete, measurable behavioral changes from the head teachers and parents through our priority point system. The point system awards and deducts points for parent and teacher attendance to Nuru meetings and seminars designed to improve the schools. The more the school is involved in Nuru initiatives, the more points they will receive. The less cooperative the school is in helping us monitor and mobilize the community to get involved with education, the less points they receive.
Once we have determined which schools are the highest scoring, we will hold a meeting with the school’s teachers and parents explaining our intentions to renovate their preschool classrooms. Yet, like everything else Nuru does, there will be a catch. Both the parents and the head teachers will have to commit to partnering with us to improve the education of the school’s youngest students. We’ll provide the classroom, and in return the head teachers will commit to reserving a specific portion of their government school funds for books and supplies for preschool lessons. The parents will work with Nuru to develop a reliable system for paying the salary of their preschool teacher. In this way, the school will be outfitted with a high-quality classroom that is run by a reliable, well-equipped teacher whose primary concern is the development of their young students, not how they’re going to get their next paycheck. It all sounds pretty good in theory. Now the tricky part will be identifying which schools will actually follow through on their end of the deal. More to come on this subject in future blogs….