The first five years of life are foundational to human development. During these early formative years, children gain knowledge through cumulative experiences as they engage with others in their surroundings. Children at this stage of development depend on their caregivers such as fathers, mothers, grandparents, and other family members to nurture them, and respond to their social-emotional, physical, and cognitive needs while the environment plays an equal role in enhancing and translating these early experiences into short & longterm knowledge. High-quality, caring, responsive, happy, and playful beginnings provide the infrastructure for whom we become for the rest of our lives.
But for many children in Ethiopia, their early start is challenged by social and environmental inequities. The majority of children under five come from unserved or underserved communities. Early trauma and severe neglect during these years create barriers to learning which is highly dependent on meaningful relationships and trust with others. An unhealthy start for many children also means a lifelong struggle to become a successful and contributing member of the larger society. But as a country, we can change the outcome for many children by investing holistically in the first five years. Early Childhood Education Ethiopia, an organization with a mission and vision to improve, advance, expand and prioritize early childhood care and education in rural Ethiopia is advocating for the following four initiatives to move toward meeting the children’s agenda in Ethiopia.
Increase Social Services
Children need unhindered care and support during their early years. Increasing social services that provide assistance to both the child and the family is a critical first step. As an integral part of the social system, schools especially early education programs in conjunction with hospitals, and public assistance agencies should be readily available and in abundance to meet the demands of the population. The concentration of such services should be prioritized first in rural areas where most of the population resides, and then cascade down to the cities.
Close the Equity Gap
Families that fall under the poverty line and those that come from the underserved community make up more than 70% of the population. Most live in rural or less industrialized areas throughout the country. For families, closing the equity gap means comprehensive support that upends one’s ability to gain financial growth, achieve self-reliance, and have access to social services that secure personal health and generational wealth. One way to close the equity gap is to afford all children the right to attend high-quality early learning programs near their communities in close proximity to their dwellings. High-quality programs begin with investing in early childhood teachers’ education, pay parity, and continued professional development.
Early Childhood Education Ethiopia’s guiding principle #4 states, “We believe parents are navigational experts, problem solvers, astute communicators, negotiators, and equal contributors to their children’s education”. As an organization, we stand fully by this statement. As such, we should invite parents to every table for input, to inform policy and co-direct practice. Integrating their voice as the driver for change should be collectively embraced at the local, national, and global platforms. We are advocating that in any decision made regarding children, parents’ engagement as equal partners must be embraced, valued, and integrated into both policy and practice.
Strengthen Rural Communities
Approximately 70% of Ethiopia’s population lives in rural areas. These communities offer a wealth of knowledge and cultural resources but the inclusion of who they are and what they bring has been absent from early education reforms. Early Childhood Education Ethiopia believes it is when we strengthen rural communities we gain measurable achievement in amplifying children’s agenda throughout Ethiopia and elsewhere. It is because of this foundational belief that Early Childhood Education Ethiopia is building the first community preschool in Debre Tabor, Ethiopia.
We often overlook the role of the environment in an early childhood education program. Environments, when crafted with intentions, take an influential role in how the child manages their day, and how the teacher/instructor/caregiver enhances their educational plans for the day. When environments respond to children’s needs, it provides security, activates the curious mind of a toddler, and entice an infant beginning to move forward with more reasons to do so. And preschoolers to advance in their thinking abilities, and negotiation skills and strengthen passions like building, drawing, and using their imagination.
For instance, an infant classroom, having low-positioned materials, semi-soft textures, and visually appealing but not overwhelming aesthetics creates a sense of calmness. It helps children regulate their emotions, frustrations, and triumph from being an infant. When the environment adds to the frustration of waiting for feeding or being held by a caregiver or difficulties managing the noise in the classroom, we see children unable to trust the environment and others in it.
Toddlers are risk-takers, they are testing their limits, and they want to find out what their legs, hands, mouth, and body can do. And the world is the best place for such a trial. Giving them wide open spaces, physically challenging activities, and providing opportunities for exploration without too much directional input supports their development. Environments designed with both hard and soft surfaces are adequately measured for safety because toddlers are built to use spaces in a very creative manner, often in ways, adults never imagined or considered.
Preschoolers use the environment to fully realize their imagination. During this period of development, children are capable to use the environment in a way that advances their cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development. The environment needs to be interesting, age-appropriate, and attentive to their ever-changing needs.
Outdoor play is not only critical but a necessary environment to include to promote optimal development. The natural world by itself is the perfect curriculum. Children love playing in water, dirt, pebbles, leaves, and anything on the ground. Building on this curiosity children have with nature, we can extend the learning outside, using the world as a classroom for all.
Children enter this world seeking love, comfort, understanding, and empathy. They hope and expect that when they cry, their parents or caregivers will feel their distress and respond to their needs. Babies are profoundly attuned to this reciprocal relationship, they thrive and grow using these early interactions to build their own emotional framework. Around age three, as children begin to interact with the wider ecological system from an advanced level of development, (communication, mobility, coordination, and attention span), we see a shift in the way they perceive and understand their own identity in the larger context of their surroundings.
Empathy and Kindness
Empathy relates to one’s ability to notice, share, understand, and take into account how others feel. For young children who are just beginning to comprehend the complexity of emotions, this can take some time to integrate, process, and apply. Kindness for children means being included, sharing toys/space, witnessing generosity, and being considerate to others. Children at this age are socially and emotionally well equipped to understand when someone wants to be part of their world, and that allowance is reciprocated. Like empathy, this skill also requires time, modeling, and lots of practice. For some children, reacting when someone is sad, and what to do when friends get hurt have been exemplified by parents, caregivers, and teachers since birth. Children who have been afforded multiple opportunities to see what kindness looks like, feel, and displayed between people in their environment, may find it easy to emulate those feelings with peers and siblings. But many children struggle with recognizing how others feel or finding the best way to help, therefore showing kindness might be challenging.
But there is a lot we can do to support children to strengthen these skills.
Ways to Promote
Highlight situations where someone is showing empathy to others, use words that capture what that means, and use facial gestures to help children understand what is better.
If you see unkind interactions, let your child know how that feels to others, so they can work more on being kind and empathetic rather than unkind.
Build their language skills by introducing and describing many different ways to say kind, generous, empathetic, and considerate.
Use affirmations when you see your child doing something kind, hug them, show affection, play with them, and when they ask why-describe what you saw them doing.
Avoid giving treats or toys for showing kindness or empathy towards others as that will diminish the intrinsic motivation to engage in such acts.
Let them see you make mistakes. If you are unkind, help them see how to correct such behavior so they can see that it takes time to develop skills that last well into adulthood.
Empathy and kindness are critical skills for human development. We can start showing children what empathy and acts of kindness mean beginning at birth and building on these skills during the early childhood period.
A central belief of Early Childhood Education Ethiopia is concerned with providing children the space, time, and encouragement to exercise their imagination. Children are interested and invested in their surroundings. They explore, test, challenge, and discover all the wonders in their immediate environment at first, and use these early experiences to build, venture out and gain advanced knowledge systems from a structured learning environment in primary grades. While play remains the most effective tool for all the domains of development, the environment which includes, teachers, peers, and other adults influence how children engage in imaginative play. Children’s involvement with the natural world is unique, they find everyday items overlooked by adults to build, mix, make noise and create. A worm slithering on the ground leaving prints from its movement ignites the young mind to ask, how can a small animal leave such a trail behind?
What can teachers, parents, and community members do?
Learning happens everywhere, every day, and every minute for the growing child. As previously mentioned interacting with nature, spending time outside, and allowing children to explore the environment serves as the building blocks for lifelong learning. Parents interested in children’s creations add immeasurable value to children’s curiosity and learning. Invite children to explain their thinking, and share how you played as a child, emphasizing its similarity of differences. Join them in their play without judging or minimizing their efforts. Teachers, and fellow children’s interests, add to it and become learners of students’ patterns of inquiry and exploration. Show genuine joy in their play by engaging, observing, and integrating it into the curriculum.
“Creativity is Intelligence Having Fun” Albert Einstein
Gebeta is referred to as one of the oldest board games in the world. This pastime favorite was once played in all corners of Ethiopia and enjoyed by all ages because of its simplicity, accessibility, and dynamic nature to change the momentum away from the lead simply by where a pebble lands. But Gebeta has other benefits for children. Gebeta teaches children how to count, wait for their turn, and apply hand-eye coordination, an important life skill for writing, painting, eating and most everything else in later life. During Gebeta play children learn number sequence, forecast future landing spots, and engage in procedural thinking, including managing their emotions in the outcome they lose the game. Gebeta is also culturally relevant to who the child is and enables her or him to find many pathways of understanding what Gebea is and means through his/her parents, and community members while promoting connection to the larger societal wealth that comes with using one’s own resources.
Building on Children’s Interest
Curiosity leads to engaged learning. When children find materials they can access and easily conceptualize, they draw from their existing knowledge to integrate more complex and higher-level thinking. Gebeta gives children early learning math skills which leads to questions about engineering like, how does the pebble fit in the groove, why does the sound change as each pebble is dropped, and why are there only 12 holes? The answer is found in Ethiopia’s history, innovation, and all from playing one of the oldest board games.
Indigenous early education starts with using indigenous materials. Children are curious when teachers show interest and engagement like those at the Shimbit KG program in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. When teachers are invested in what children are learning, how they are learning, and find ways to make it more meaningful for the child, education becomes attainable allowing children to translate experience into knowledge that benefits the child first and foremost. Teachers are including Gebeta for many reasons but primarily to teach through play. To provide children with early conceptual skills related to counting, sorting, organizing, and again through playing.