Child’s play

02 October 2018

Advancing education means starting with toddlers.

Piyush Hemnani was born in a tiny village of less than 800 people deep in the interiors of rural Gujarat. Today, Piyush is on a full scholarship at one of the top business schools in Europe, and he attributes much of his success to an institution one might be surprised to find in a village this remote.

“I happened to have a beautiful childhood at an AKES play school,” says Piyush, referring to the Early Childhood Development centre he went to before school. “The friends, the atmosphere and the teachers made it a beautiful dream.”

Khoja Beraja is 20 km from the nearest major city and has only one primary school with an overwhelmingly male workforce. Yet, it arguably has an asset that gives its youth the best chances of excelling in their education. 

Recent studies in child development show that 85 percent of human brain development happens during the first five years after birth, where the most important stage of the child’s development happens even before they enter school. Piyush believes that the environment during his early years enabled him to excel at every stage of his formal education.

In his later years, Piyush was selected for a government of India programme which provided free high-quality education to rural students of merit. “This crucial childhood care helped me in getting selected to Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya,” says Piyush. He topped his classes and went on to win a full scholarship to university, where he graduated in the top 5 percentile of mechanical engineers in the country. 

Piyush’s ECD centre is one of 19 started since 1978 by the Aga Khan Education Service, India since 1978 under the Rural Education Advancement Programme (REAP), in an effort to help children in rural areas make the most of their early years. 

Unlike adults who can learn from focused reading or studying, children learn by observing and interacting with their surroundings. Thus, centres are equipped with lots of play materials such as blocks, puzzles, models, and modelling clay, and the curriculum is designed for children to enjoy learning.

Trained ECD teachers guide the children through daily tasks, which they plan at the beginning of the day. After completing the assigned activities, the students review what they have accomplished. The agenda is guided by the curiosity of the children rather than by a rigid curricula. The range of activities stimulates intellectual, linguistic, social, emotional, and physical development of the child.

The centres are also open to children from all backgrounds, regardless of caste or religion so that children learn to feel comfortable in a pluralistic and diverse environment. Teachers speak to the children in English and the local language so that from a young age, they start developing bilingual capabilities.

The programme also involves parents in the educational process by having them read to the children. It involves members of the larger community through a volunteer committee to help manage the day-to-day functions of the programme. 

Since starting in 1978, the programme has taught approximately 60,000 students, laying a strong foundation for their education process. Good schools are an indication of a society’s ability to educate its youth. However, since a large portion of brain development occurs before children even enter primary school, ECD centres are playing a crucial role to ensure that the children are well prepared for further learning.

Like Piyush, many more students from rural areas are reaping the benefits of good early childhood care. For Piyush, the ECD experience still brings him joy: “Those are some of the most precious childhood memories I still carry.”