Kenya’s early learning centres may be doing more harm than good

A pre-school class in Nairobi, Kenya. Flickr/JahBone

Like the rest of the developing world, more and more women in Kenya are joining the formal workforce. As a result there’s been a growing need for centres that can care for young children.

This has seen early childhood development and education centres in Kenya mushroom, spurred by a rise in parents who believe early childhood development education is a critical step to primary education. A great deal of research has been done on the issue. It shows that early education is an integral part in developing cognitive stimulation, language skills, social and emotional attributes.

The care of young children from birth to primary school requires special skills. But Kenya’s centres are generally left unsupervised by the government, so these skills aren’t always available.

In rural areas, early childhood development and education centres are typically makeshift structures or just take place in the shade of trees. In the urban areas, this lucrative market is driven more by commercial considerations than by the development of children. This opens them up to being operated by people with no background in early childhood development. It also compromises the quality of care.

In Kenya, early childhood education is the most competitive level of education. Getting their children into their first choice primary school is a big deal for parents, so their early learning centre choice is critical.

If parents can afford it, they choose to send their children to private institutions. These are better staffed. For example, three different classes are offered depending on the children’s age. In state-run early development centres public centres, due to a shortage of teachers and funding from the government, children of all ages learn together under one teacher.

Academic over holistic

Competition between the private sector centres is high. The focus is firmly on the child’s mastery of academic skills and the school’s reputation, to the detriment of them learning holistically. A holistic approach pays attention to children’s physical, personal, social, emotional and spiritual well-being as well as cognitive aspects of learning.

Scandinavian countries, for example, has for some time embraced holistic learning in childhood education. They had seen the toll that the pressure for school success can take on the children. This was seen in youth who were no longer able to absorb academic pressure leading to manifestations and so engaged in negative social behaviour such as drug abuse.

In Kenya, children in both public and private preschools tend to learn through academic drills of alphabet letters, letter sound pronunciations and the memorisation of numbers. This goes against the holistic approach where children learn using everyday experiences. Themes in this approach include going shopping and learning numbers in the process; this allows children to associate whatever they learn to their surrounding and real life examples.

In many private academies, lower primary school textbooks are used for the young nursery and pre-unit classes. This illustrates how, in an attempt to accelerate learning, babies are literally taught the work meant for nursery children.

The workload doesn’t finish at the end of the school day either. Children as young as three years old are expected to do homework. There are also examinations at the end of term from baby class to pre-unit. When leaving pre-school, children are subjected to primary school interviews.

The alternatives

Kenya’s early childhood development and education policy recommends an integrated holistic thematic approach in teaching. But it has not been fulfilling its role as the overseer of early childhood education in Kenya effectively. For one, education policy in Kenya is explicitly against interviewing children joining standard one class. But these interviews continue to be administered.

There are alternative theories on child development that offer guidelines on how children should learn during their formative years:

  • Montessori argued that the environment children learn from should be homelike to facilitate hands-on practice. Here children learn life skills such as cooking or setting a dining table. These activities are meant to help the child appreciate social relationships and responsible behaviour.

  • Piaget emphasises that children learn by pretend play, creativity, problem solving, and by trial and error. For example, a nature walk would give them hands-on exploration of important science concepts.

  • John Dewey argues that learning should be based on practical hands-on real life experiences. According to Dewey, children should start each day with a group meeting – like planning a cooking activity. During these, children will discuss and develop language and social skills.

  • Vygostky argues that children learn to appreciate their families’ cultures through play. Through socio-dramatic play, children discover social events and activities carried out by their community and family.

If learning in these centres has to take a Western education perspective, then these approaches give guidelines that make learning bigger than academic drilling. This would provide children with a practical, low-pressure environment that enables them to explore and develop basic academic skills, as well as life values.