Playgrounds vital for Early Childhood Development

Monday March 29 2021

Children playing at the Shamji Gomba Early Child Development Centre in Gomba District before the Covid-19 outbreak. The pandemic made playgrounds more relevant. PHOTO/FILE

By George Katongole

About 4.5 million pre-primary going learners are still stuck at home, one year after the country went into a lockdown enforced due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

And with the lockdown measures, education was among those sectors largely affected, by the indefinite closure of schools including Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres.
Equity divides were also widened by the lack of  internet, power and access to devices, especially in rural communities.

Only recently, partial reopening of some classes was allowed. These included candidates, who resumed classes last year, while Primary Six, Senior Three and Senior Five students reported back to school on March 1 for 12 weeks up until May 21.  

However, ECD centres that ideally handle children below six years cannot reopen until after the pandemic has been dealt with, according to Education minister Janet Museveni.

Early childhood education is a term that refers to the period of time from a child’s birth to when they enter kindergarten. It is an important time in children’s lives because it is when they first learn how to interact with others, including peers, teachers and parents, and also begin to develop interests that will stay with them throughout their lives. It is a time when children learn critical social and emotional skills and a partnership is formed between the child, their parents and the teacher. When this is done successfully, it lays the groundwork for it to continue throughout the child’s education.

According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) early childhood care and education (ECCE) is more than preparation for primary school. It aims at the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing. ECCE has the possibility to nurture caring, capable and responsible future citizens. The importance of early childhood education cannot be overstated. 


A large part of critical brain development in children happens before they even start kindergarten. It impacts everything from school performance to lifelong social skills.

The research detailing these benefits was completed during the 80’s. In addition to benefiting children experiencing normal development, it was also shown that children with learning or other physical disabilities benefit immensely from pre-kindergarten education. Also, children with parents highly involved in their pre-kindergarten education do not experience the same positive results from Head Start programmes as children coming from homes where it’s not as much an emphasis.

Children taught how to speak a second language during their early developmental years are also in a better position to learn English at a young age.
Studies have looked at everything from the broad social benefits of early childhood education, to something as specific as STEM learning outcomes (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and how introducing children to these topics early on can have a lasting impact. It also enables early childhood educators to really get to know specific interests of their pupils. Studies have shown that when children are comfortable and trust the people around them, they learn more quickly and successfully. 

Children are inclined to be curious and interested in discovering new things. Quality early childhood programmes maximise opportunities for the discovery of new experiences, new environments, and new friends, while maintaining a balance with the ability to listen, participate in group tasks, follow directions, and work independently, all of which develop the vital life skill of concentration.

It has been discovered that children who receive quality early childhood education are reportedly more confident and curious, which causes them to perform better in grade school. 

Children learn how to manage challenges and build resilience in times of difficulty; settle easily at school to reap the benefits of education faster; and acquire a long-term interest in learning different things, including playing music, dancing, singing, construction, cooking, etc.

One of the biggest challenges educators face is finding the right balance between working one-on-one with children and managing the larger group as a whole. For example, if you are working in a classroom, you could be really focused on learning what a child’s specific interests and needs are meanwhile you have got a lot of other children who also need your attention.

According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef), investing in the early years is not only in the best interest of children but it is also key to developing human capital.
“Uganda’s future as a middle-income country depends on providing the tools for upward mobility and building an educated and skilled workforce. ECD is the most efficient way to accomplish this goal,” Unicef notes. 

Prior to the Covid-19 interruption and Ms Museveni’s announcement, early learning and development in Uganda had already been compromised by the lack of pre-schools and other ECD programmes as well as qualified teachers.

Only one out of every 10 children, aged three, is enrolled in pre-primary education in Uganda, statistics from Brac, a development organisation that tackles poverty in several parts of the world, indicate. ECD is also considered an expensive intervention and service availability is significantly low – both for refugee and mainstream children.

In Uganda, Brac has contributed to poverty reduction and women support through programmes operating in microfinance, agriculture, food security, and livelihood, health, education since 2006.
Although a number of initiatives have been taken by the government in collaboration with the organisations working in education sectors, such as Brac, it has been a difficult situation for learners, parents and teachers.

“Girls especially have become more vulnerable to drop-out, child marriage and early pregnancy. Equity divides have increased where internet, power and access to devices are scarce, especially in rural communities,” Dr Erum Mariam, executive director, Brac institute of Educational Development told Daily Monitor.

With support from the Yidan Prize foundation, Brac has aided education development by implementing low cost play-based ECD programmes, to address the needs of children and families in resource constrained communities and humanitarian contexts.
The Play Lab projects demonstrate that the poorest and most vulnerable children can have access to quality and affordable ECD.

The Play Labs are safe play spaces, providing cost effective local learning materials to children in marginalised communities. The goal is to ensure physical, cognitive, language communication and social-emotional development of children under five through play in a joyful, creative and child friendly environment.

“We are working with communities, parents, children, governments and partners to build solutions to these gaps in learning,” Dr Erum says.
“In Uganda, we have education programmes from early years through secondary education. Our early childhood development (ECD) programme aligns with Uganda’s integrated early childhood policy supporting a play-based learning approach named Play Lab Model.

This model has been developed in three countries - Bangladesh, Tanzania and Uganda - in partnership with leading ECD stakeholders such as the Lego Foundation, Cambridge University and Columbia University.

These programmes have a huge positive impact in the community, supporting community ownership and involvement beginning with play material development using local and culturally relevant materials and including professional development to manage the centres. 

Early Childhood Development in Uganda
The Early Childhood Development Policy in the Education Sector approved in 2007 stresses the importance of Early Childhood Education (ECD); the early stimulation of different parts of the brain to provide social and learning advancement throughout life. Such care does not produce a self-centred child, rather a child, who trusts, is curious, strives to learn new things and is skillful in social interaction.

What is Early Childhood Development? 
Government launched the programme in 2016. Through it, the child can have a good start in life since it goes beyond educating the child to ensuring they get good nutrition, sanitation and socialisation skill development. ECD centres do not teach but develop the minds of the children. 

Accoding to Dr Noor Jaffer, chairman of Institute for Rural Education and Development (IREAD), a Canadian charity organisation that has created itself a niche in building Early Childhood Development Centres in rural areas, “Unlike nursery school, children in ECD learn by touching and feeling objects. We do not make them sit in a classroom environment but rather try creating one that is not limited to allow them move around and explore their surroundings freely.” 

IREAD operates 10 centres in Uganda Kampala, Bugweri, Bukedea, Kanungu, West Nile, Kayunga and Sironko for children aged three to six.

Second home
Schools closed in March 2020 at the onset of the corona virus disease (Covid-19), but the one-acre playground at Busheka Early Childhood Development (ECD) centre is still filled with songs and sporadic peals of laughter from children aged 2 to 8 years. 

At the time of its closure in March 2020 Busheka ECD centre in Oruchinga Settlement Camp in Isingiro District was home to 86 refugee children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. A few days into the school closure, a few children started showing up at the playground every day just to play. The numbers kept increasing and by February 2021, the playground recorded a daily average of 30 children.

Busheka is one of the 27 ECD centres in four refugee settlements in south-western Uganda benefiting from a Unicef partnership with Right to Play, a child rights-based organisation, aimed at enhancing integrated early childhood development in refugee settlements and host communities in Isingiro, Kamwenge and Kyegegwa districts.  Unicef provides indoor and outdoor play materials, capacity building of caregivers, parents and the community, as well as district strengthening in delivery of integrated ECD activities. 

During the Covid-19 lockdown, the caregivers collaborated with village health teams and started a home learning programme that brings together children from three homes into a study group. The caregivers teach parents how to use different items at home such as ropes, sticks and stones for guided learning. 

“The community has adopted a positive attitude towards early childhood learning, which was formerly considered a waste.” Paulah Aryatuha (pictured below) , the Right to Play Project Officer for south western region, notes; “There is better adherence to key principles of family and childcare, and more parents are more accepting of play as a learning tool.”

Source: Unicef