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Early-childhood education and development

In 2010, the volunteer trekkers included Doreen Launder, a New Zealand expert in early childhood education and development. Doreen reviewed the early childhood education facilities established by KSP in Ghunsa and Folay and reported as follows:

Evaluation report 2010

Early Childhood Education and Development (ECED) programmes were introduced to both Folay and Ghunsa by Susan Wagner and Amie Paschal in 1997, as further development of KSP’s long term goals. Six months later Wilana Hamilton spent six weeks in Ghunsa offering additional early childhood teacher guidance and training. Montessori equipment and teaching methods were introduced on both occasions.

The goal of providing ECED for the village children and families is two-pronged: one is to provide important foundation learning and development for young children, and the other is to support parents, usually mothers, who are expected to work in the village economy and the home.

The 2010 trek marked the first visit by an early childhood professional since 1997, and its purpose was to evaluate the programmes and equipment and to provide guidance to ECED teachers, parents, and village leaders.

Changes have occurred over the past 14 years. In 1997 children aged 3-5 years participated in the two ECED programmes. In 2010 the ages ranged from infants to 5 years, with most children under 3 years of age. Folay had 10 children enrolled and Ghunsa had approximately 14 children aged from 6 to 30 months. This age range change is a significant change. Both centres are open each morning, 10am – 12.00 Noon, six days a week.

Quality of the buildings
Each of the ECED centres operates in a small room, approximately 12ft (3.5m) square. Neither centre has any heating and this affects attendance. Both have dirt floors, however, Folay had a small floor rug, which is used for infants. We visited in October (late summer-autumn) and the rooms were extremely cold.

Folay was in generally good order; it has good natural lighting and shelves for equipment. Similarly, Ghunsa’s building is sound and has shelves for equipment. Ghunsa has shutters over a glass-less window and hence the room was very dark and cold. It was too cold to remain in the room and we moved out into the autumn sunshine for warmth.

Some perspex was located and David and the school teachers fitted it into the glass-less window. While this helped, perspex is not a good insulating material. KSP plans to improve the lighting.

The teachers at both Folay and Ghunsa are doing a very good job, despite limited space and equipment and varying support.

Originally, there were two teachers at each centre, and Ghunsa continues to work with two teachers, Peng Yi and Phuti. Folay is now operating with only one, Chetin Parten. Sadly Ama, the second Folay teacher, died in 2008. Chetin Parten worked with a second teacher for a short time, but the teacher proved unsuitable and Chetin Parten has been working alone for almost two years. For safety and an effective ECED programme, one teacher for every five children (0-3 years) is the internationally recognised minimum ratio. So, for Folay’s ten children, one teacher is not acceptable and further support is needed in order to employ a second teacher.

The teachers are untrained and there are no professional development opportunities or indeed any professional support.

Neither of the ECED centres accepts parent or mother help, either systematically or casually. This precludes any opportunity for parents to learn about child rearing and the consequent strengthening of the community. I recommend strongly a system of regular parent participation and support.

ECED did not appear to be held in high regard in Folay, and it was not evident that Chetin Parten’s contribution to the village community is recognised or appreciated. This contrasts with the feeling in Ghunsa, where village support for the ECED programme and the teachers is strong.

Each centre has a small range of equipment. The equipment is generally well worn and sets of equipment are incomplete. Incomplete equipment inhibits meaningful engagement and learning. Equipment and toys for infants and toddlers are limited. The equipment included:

Musical Instruments: A small selection of musical instruments in each centre. We gave addition instruments to each centre.

Duplo: Both centres have Duplo blocks, but there is insufficient for the number of children or for complex construction.

Puzzles: Folay has some puzzles, but with missing pieces. Ghunsa has no puzzles. We gave four puzzles to each centre.

Blocks: Each centre has an assortment of blocks. However, the blocks were not mathematically based. We gave one small set of coloured blocks to each centre.

Animals: Each centre has a range of animals for dramatic and pretend play and learning. We gave additional animals to each centre.

Dress-ups: Each centre has a limited range of dress-ups for dramatic and pretend play, which is important for children coming to understand their worlds. Dress-up and pretend props also provide rich opportunities for language learning and development.

Books: Both centres have very few children’s books, and these are in poor condition. There are also some inappropriate books, also in poor condition.

Art equipment: Each centre has a few old crayons, but very limited amounts of paper.

Old and broken equipment had not been removed from either centre. For example, Ghunsa had a blue play tunnel with all supporting hoops bursting out of the fabric, so that it is no longer usable. Folay had a range of inappropriate school-age books, which we removed. The Montessori equipment is no longer complete, does not appear to be used, and is not suitable for the current age range.

There did not appear to be any appreciation of locally ‘found’ materials as learning opportunities, nor an appreciation of learning in the natural environment. We did not observe any local cultural activities modified as activities for children (for example weaving, which is a Folay tradition). Teacher training is needed to introduce teachers to these possibilities.

Owing to the Dasain and Tihar Festivals, both centres were on holiday when we visited. The teachers kindly opened the centres for us and children (including school children) and parents joined our visit. There was a sense of occasion and excitement, as it was 18 months since the last KSP visit and the first designated visit to the ECED centres for 14 years. Coupled with this, the villages knew we had gifts of toys and learning equipment to contribute.

Sheryl and I tried to stage a regular ECED session and to use the visits as a teacher training opportunity, although this proved difficult but not impossible. We observed children playing with stacking blocks, Duplo, and animals, and gained a sense that the teachers were doing the best they could, working in a small, cold spaces with children ranging widely in their stages of development and learning.

The two Centres open for two hours each day: 10.00 am to 12.00 noon. I recommend that the opening hours be increased, particularly for the older children.

The gifts of red and blue block sets, new musical instruments (from Sheryl), new animals, and puzzles were particularly popular. Puzzles needed one-on-one guidance to help the children learn and to prevent infants from interrupting young children’s concentration. School children, who joined at each visit, were keen to do the puzzles, build with the blocks, etc, thus effectively interrupting the younger children’s engagement.
We discussed the overall programme and the teachers’ philosophies to gain insights into the approaches to teaching they were using. Then, as an alternative to what appeared to be a formal learning approach, we raised the importance of teachers working with children, communicating with them, and guiding their learning.

We gave each centre a soccer ball. In Folay, this was commandeered by older children, who had wonderful time demonstrating their soccer and team skills in the adjoining open spaces. The older boys promise to the give ball back to the ECED centres when finished.

In Ghunsa, owing to the cold, we moved out to the playground, where the school teachers laid out a largish mat for the parents’, children’s and teachers’ comfort and warmth. The children, parents, and teachers experimented with the new musical instruments in a culturally-based sing-along which the school teachers led. This was a successful session, and it was great to see the children, parents, and teachers all joining in the experience. We weren’t sure if this is a common practice.

The Folay session included ECED teachers, children, parents, school teachers, and school children. Young children played with the limited Duplo blocks and crawling babies tried to join in. With this crowd and our presence, we couldn’t observe a regular session, although from discussion we understood that discipline is a reasonably significant part of the programme. This may be a consequence of having only one teacher for 10 children of varying ages.

Village meetings
We met with parents and village leaders in both Folay and Ghunsa. We asked about the value of ECED to their respective villages, and received the firm assurance that the villages wanted to keep ECED going. The villages commented on the importance of freeing mothers to work in the local agricultural economy and home activities. This ‘child-minding approach’ eschewed the value of ECED as a learning opportunity and resource for children, parents, and the community.

At each meeting, we discussed the potential of the ECED to become a community resource, in which the parents are rostered to help the teachers. We explained the attendant benefits of mothers learning about child rearing and of community strengthening. This is generally referred to as a ‘community of learners’ approach, but there was clearly no appreciation of its value.

In Folay, community support and involvement appeared particularly weak. For example, although it has a tradition of carpet weaving, children in Folay’s ECED play on a cold dirt floor.

Looking to the future
Most countries regard ECED as education from birth to 6 or 7 years (when children enter school). Early childhood research, over the last 10-20 years, has shown the value of socio-cultural learning that involves parents, teachers, and children in a community of learners, wherein everyone is a learner and everyone is a teacher. The phrase socio-cultural pedagogy implies the dynamic and interchangeable nature of teaching and learning. Learning is understood to be culturally based, meaning that it is an integral part of the child’s cultural and social world. For example, learning activities might include counting the paving stones, or the local mountain peaks, reading the weather, understanding that words, pictures and symbols convey a message, participating in the literacy of the local customs such as music, dance, and festivals, and, in the case of both villages, that energy comes from fires, solar panels, and hydro dams, etc. There is much to learn and do in both village environments, and I recommend local outings to encourage this.

Play is a critical activity wherein children make sense of their world as they act out and explore ideas. For example, a group of children in Suketar were observed playing with stones, a small piece of cloth and a doll. One child was holding a flat stone to his ear, as a cell-phone, calling for help. Another child was putting the doll to bed under the cloth. Such child-directed activities are at the heart of language and cultural learning for young children.

Enstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. We gained the impression that both ECED centres use elements of formal teaching practices and that the teachers appreciate little the value of providing opportunities for creative thinking and self-directed learning. This is perhaps unsurprising, as research shows that untrained teachers usually teach in the way they themselves were taught, generally using a teacher-directed approach and formal teaching practices. Teachers, particularly teachers of young children, need support and guidance to understand the process by which young children learn and how to teach in a child-centred way.

The teachers in both Ghunsa and Folay need help to understand this approach and to develop appropriate skills, and I recommend that a trained early-childhood teacher spend time in both Folay and Ghunsa to that end. At the same time, the teacher would introduce the villagers to the concept of participatory, community-based ECED with a community-of-learning focus that links also to child health and support for mothers, particularly young mothers.

In 2001 the Nepalese Government’s Ministry of Education introduced a five year plan for ECED with the objective of ‘expanding quality ECED services for children of four years of age to prepare them for basic education’ (see Ministry of Education, Nepal, School Sector Reform Plan 2009-2015). This support may not be available to Folay as it is under direction of the Tibetan Government in Exile.

Doreen Launder
ECED Evaluator and Advisor
Kangchenjunga School Project