Reflections from the AfECN Conference
Reflections from the AfECN Conference
Denise Bonsu, Results for Development
Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the African Early Childhood Network (AfECN) Conference in Nairobi with my colleague Kavita Hatipoglu. The event was monumental, not just because it was the largest international conference on Early Childhood Development (ECD) to take place in Africa but also because it was my first work related travel with R4D. As someone with a growing interest in ECD, I was ecstatic to find out that I would be setting foot on African soil after a four-year hiatus and attending an event that would provide me with a crash course on ECD.
The beginning of the conference was nerve-wracking. I had just arrived in Nairobi and was extremely jet-lagged following many hours of travel. Upon entering the conference room, I was swallowed up by a crowd of over 800 people including government officials, researchers, funders, and many other experts in ECD from different corners of the world. Although initially intimidated at being surrounded by well-known experts in the field, my fear quickly dissipated as I was sucked into the buzz and excitement of the crowd and began conversing with the other participants.
One of the highlights from my first day was witnessing President Uhuru Kenyatta’s speech during the opening ceremony. Kenya’s ECD sector has undergone remarkable transformation in recent years and accessible, comprehensive, and equitable early childhood care and education is slowly become a reality for millions of young children. Recent accomplishments include an increase in the general enrollment in preschool from 69.4% in 2012 to 77.1% in 2017 and a 32.8% increase in the number of teachers trained in early childhood education during that same period. Despite these achievements, the President emphasized the need for more work and highlighted the challenges that Kenya still faces with high adult: child ratios, a lack of teaching resources, and low cross-sectoral collaboration. To tackle some of these issues, his administration plans to develop an integrated early childhood development policy to ensure the coordination of services across ministries for young children and families.
To emphasize this point, the President called on the wives of thirty-one county governors who were attending the conference and urged them to remind their husbands to prioritize ECD. This moment was important because it showed that ECD was a priority for high-ranking officials in the context of a decentralized system.
Following the opening ceremony, we were whisked away to various plenary and parallel sessions on topics that included the following:
Strengthening Systems for Children with Disabilities
As someone with a strong interest in supporting children with disabilities in low and middle-income countries, I was encouraged to find out that the conference featured multiple presentations on this subject area. Although over 53 million children under the age of five worldwide have a developmental disability, this group does not receive much attention in ECD discussions, especially in low and middle income countries. Children with special needs have a higher risk of experiencing marginalization, abuse, and behavioral and emotional problems and are less likely to be enrolled in formal pre-primary education programs due to the stigma that surrounds disabilities in many countries. Pre-primary teachers are often ill equipped to support these children as their pre-and in-service training focuses on traditional teaching methodologies that do not cater to diverse learning styles. This session explored how pre-service early childhood teacher education programs can be strengthened if they include mandatory courses on assisting children with disabilities and stressed the importance of providing members of the workforce who routinely support students with disabilities with in-service training on this topic. Providing the workforce with these trainings will not only reduce the stigma surrounding children with disabilities, but also create a pathway for these children to thrive later on in life. Although these sessions left me feeling disappointed at the extent to which children with disabilities have been ignored in ECD policy discussions, I left the session hopeful that programs could be bolstered to better support these children and their families.
Focus on the Early Learning Workforce
I found this session interesting because it highlighted the importance of putting children at the center of their learning experience and resonated with my work with the Early Childhood Workforce Initiative. Although research increasingly shows the benefits of play-based approaches, many African teachers primarily employ teacher-led approaches and encourage rote learning. To address this challenge, the Open Society Initiative in Southern Africa (OSISA) supported a “materials re-development” process in Lesotho and 10 other African countries from 2011 to 2017. These materials were re-developed using the resources developed and used in Eastern Europe by ISSA, co-host with R4D of the Early Childhood Workforce Initiative. This process involved the piloting of resource kits comprised of content modules, activity modules, facilitator guides, and children’s activity books in select classrooms. The activity books, in particular, were bright and colorful and featured pictures to appeal to young children. At the end of the piloting process, teachers stated that the kits not only fueled their students’ interest in learning, but also encouraged their own collaboration with students. This experience in Lesotho highlights how teachers can effectively use low-cost materials to create a positive environment that places children at the center of the learning process. Although play-based methodologies have not traditionally been employed in certain African pre-school settings, I am excited to see what lessons can be learned and achievements made as this practice becomes more widespread.
Wrapping up the last day
On the last day of the conference, I was both excited to be returning home to loved ones but also sad that the experience was almost over. As I walked out of the conference room to prepare for the long journey back, I paused in front of a showcase of a play area featured by Kidogo, a social enterprise that delivers early childhood care and education to children in East Africa. A little girl was seated in the middle of the showcase and drawing on a sheet of paper while her caregiver smiled and watched on. As I proceeded towards the exit, it dawned on me that by investing in the caregiver and providing her with the opportunity to flourish within the profession, we are ensuring that the little girl in the play area is able to grow into a healthy, productive, and well-rounded citizen of the world.