Learning through play in northern Uganda

While procrasti-reading earlier this week, I came across an interesting article discussing disparities in play-based learning in American early child education. Lower-income public schools are less likely to have the resources and time to dedicate to meaningful play that encourages inquiry and creativity. When there are increased pressures to introduce academic skills early and ‘close the achievement gap’, child-directed play is often replaced with more worksheets, instruction, and testing.

Especially in the pre-school years but also throughout primary education, play is essential to children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. This seems obvious to those of us who had the privilege of learning in environments that were structured and facilitated in ways that encouraged us to learn through play. As a kid at home and at school, materials like counting cubes, paint, and craft supplies were part of my daily routine. I had so much lego I could have moved out of my parents’ at age 8 to live in my own lego house (a goal that I would still like to achieve one day).

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit two schools where play is a central component of a holistic early childhood development model. But I wasn’t in a middle-upper class neighbourhood in North America. I was in Arua and Koboko, two districts in the West Nile region of northern Uganda.


An MECP-supported classroom in Koboko, Uganda.

The schools I visited are part of the renowned Madrasa Early Childhood Program (MECP), an initiative of the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF). The program was started in 1986 to provide pre-school education to underserved Muslim communities in the coastal region of Kenya. The first MECP curriculum combined contemporary pre-school content with local Swahili culture, language, songs, and stories. The word madrasa comes from the Arabic ‘a place of study’. In the context of this program, however, the word refers to pre-schools.

The MECP is now 30 years old and has established over 200 pre-schools in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, and has reached over 70,000 students. Each of the three countries has an early childhood development resource centre used for teacher trainings and outreach. The MECP has trained over 4000 teachers and over 1700 government officials, and the program’s early childhood development institute in Kampala, Uganda is now an accredited teacher training institution. The program is engaged in meaningful research, advocacy, and policy work surrounding issues of education and early childhood in East Africa.

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Display boards in the MECP resource centre in Kampala, Uganda.

As the program grew, schools developed school management committees (SMCs) intended to engage community leaders and parents (including women and mothers) in the school management process. This allows communities to take pride and responsibility of the madrasas in meaningful and locally relevant ways.

The madrasas pay keen attention to local context in their design and implementation. In the schools in Arua, instruction is in the local language Lugbarati, while in Koboko the teacher and students speak Kakwa. During one visit to a madrasa in Arua, the students split into two groups for 30 minutes of religion. One teacher guided Muslim students to a mosque next door for prayers and Quran, while another teacher read a Bible story to the Christian students.

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A daily schedule in a madrasa in Kampala.

One of the most impressive features of the madrasas is that almost all of the learning materials are made from recycled objects or materials from the school’s surrounding environment. The ECD resource centre has developed innovative ways to turn old bottle caps, maize, and plant fibres into math manipulatives and art supplies. The teachers have attended workshops where they create their own storybooks in both English and the local language.


Group work in Koboko, Uganda.

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Locally made literacy materials.


Math with maize!

In a context where classroom models are largely based on teacher-led instruction and rote learning, it is refreshing to see students away from their desks, being active, and learning together. According to a study published in the International Journal of Early Years Education, the program has had significant positive impacts on children’s cognitive development and their school readiness, when compared to students who attended other preschools or remained at home. This is not just because madrasa students begin Primary 1 already having basic numeracy and literacy skills, but also because they have a more positive relationship with learning. Teachers often tell us that students who complete the madrasa program and progress to Primary 1 sometimes come back to the madrasas and wish they could stay. And I don’t blame them – my mornings spent in the madrasas made me wish I could be a student there too.

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An MECP classroom in Kampala, Uganda. The MECP established pre-schools throughout central Uganda before expanding its support to West Nile region, where I currently live and work.

My visits to the madrasas were one of my first activities as an international development management fellow with AKF. During my fellowship, I won’t be working directly with the MECP, but it was wonderful to visit some of the schools being impacted by the program’s work. During my fellowship, I’ll be working in monitoring and evaluation for some of AKF Uganda’s other education projects, which include education system strengthening, community libraries, ICT for teacher professional development, and youth adult literacy. If you’d like to learn about those projects, keep an eye out for my future blog posts.

The views expressed in this post are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the Aga Khan Foundation, Aga Khan Development Network, or Global Affairs Canada.



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