Over the past months, we have learned that COVID-19 is more than a health crisis. The pandemic has disrupted our regular way of life and is changing how we interact with one another. For many young children, the pandemic has raised significant barriers to accessing education.
For Sweta Shah, Global Lead for Early Childhood Development (ECD) at the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), there is good reason to be concerned. During AKF’s digital event, “Mind the Gap”, she noted that school closures and makeshift virtual programmes are not ideal, especially for young children.
“We know that a number of countries are probably going to have a full year where children won’t have access to any sort of education,” Sweta says. “Our approach at Aga Khan Foundation is very much interactive, play-based learning. The fact that schools are closed, or they’re virtual in some places, is really concerning to us.”
But amidst crisis, there has also been innovation. “We’ve taken a number of steps to really address [these concerns], support government and support our communities,” says Sweta.
In Kenya, AKF, with support from the Government of Canada and LEGO Foundation, partnered with Nation Media Group, starting a nationwide television programme for children called Night-time Tales. It was fun for families to gather around a TV, but it also showed parents how storytelling can help children build many 21st century skills – giving parents a new way of participating in their children’s education.
A similar radio programme was also rolled out by the Madrasa Early Childhood Programme in Tanzania, disseminating short literacy and numeracy programmes in short 10- to 15-minute spots. There have also been innovations through SMS and WhatsApp to keep teachers and parents connected with each other for peer-to-peer support.
“These innovations are promising as we move forward in continuing to support education in our most remote geographies”, says Sweta.
“Some of these actions that came about because of COVID, we’re going to want to keep to some degree as well, even when schools open,” she says.
Another bright spot for Sweta has been how involved parents have become in their children’s education.
“As an ECD community... we promote parents and caregivers as the first and most important teachers for their children,” says Sweta. "I think another silver lining is [how] parents are learning through this process about their own role."
Working closely with parents and caregivers has also created an opportunity to deliver home messages about gender equality and the importance of girls’ education. For instance, learning materials use examples and pictures that challenge traditional gender norms, such as the notion that girls should take on a greater share of the household work than boys.
Research on early childhood tells us how important the first few years of life are to a person’s capacity to grow, learn and succeed over their lifespan. As the pandemic continues to change the way we live, the Aga Khan Foundation remains committed to improving the quality of life in the communities where it works. This includes ensuring children are able to flourish in the years to come, even in challenging circumstances.
Watch the full interview with Sweta Shah.
Learn more about how AKDN is supporting education during the pandemic:
- Read up on AKDN resources for families with children at home
- Read up on AKDN resources for educators
- Listen to this bonus episode of Behind the Pages, a podcast by the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies. In it, Sweta discusses Early Childhood Development in Emergencies.
This article was adapted from a blog published on the Aga Khan Foundation Canada website.