Giving children a head start in early education

Education was so important to Hortence Kiroha that she and her husband decided to set up an early learning centre in their back garden. “I saw the young children just running around,” she says. “I really wanted to help them learn and be productive so we built this centre. We don’t take any money for it — we’ll be repaid in heaven.”

Hortence is in charge of the Katselolo early learning centre on Bouganville Island in Papua New Guinea. 38 children aged 3–5 are currently taught in the three simple, small classrooms built from wood, sand and coconut leaves.

Hortence Kiroha

“I was in Port Moresby [Papua New Guinea’s capital] for UNICEF’s curriculum and teacher training, it was excellent,” says Hortence. “One of the best things we did was on daily routine and material production.”

Children take part in a game to learn the alphabet

Teachers from all across Papua New Guinea were trained by UNICEF on how to plan classes, help children learn through play. They were shown how to build learning materials such as learning blocks, visual aids and games using local materials.

“I learned how to improvise: I use rice bags to draw and write on since we don’t have blackboards,” said Hortence, pointing around one of the classrooms. “You can see we use the coconut leaves as mats for children to sit on.”

In the first years of life, children establish the cognitive, emotional and social foundation upon which they can build their futures. Early childhood is the most significant developmental period of life. Yet in Papua New Guinea, there are very few children below the age of six who have access to early learning opportunities. Most of the ECD centres that currently exist are privately operated and expensive, which means poor and marginalized children are often unable to access them.

“It makes going to elementary school much easier for them, they have the basic skills,” said Hortence proudly. “Teachers come to visit and they are very happy with what we’re doing here. We’re doing well.”

For 4 hours a day Hortence and two other volunteer teachers take the children through a host of activities. “We teach children many ways,” explains Hortence. “We have literacy circle, corner play, snack and play time, maths circle and a closing meeting where we reflect on the day.”

Locally made memory cards

The parents are also enthusiastic about the results. “When they finish here the children go home and show the parents what they learned,” says Hortence. “That’s really helpful: the parents see the work and tell us how much the children are improving.”

UNICEF is assisting the government in drafting the minimum operating standards for running early learning centres in Papua New Guinea and supporting the government in drafting a multi-sector early childhood policy.

The satisfaction of seeing the children develop and be successful at school is what keeps Hortence motivated. “I am very happy. I want to see all my village’s children in the classroom,” she says. “They need to start learning young. I’m so thankful to UNICEF to help a village woman like me come so far to help so many.”

Story and photos by Simon Nazer