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Alarm over toddler scholars

By | January 31st 2010 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

By Kenfrey Kiberenge

Education and early childhood development experts are concerned over a new trend where children are being hounded out of bed as early as 5am to go to school.

Every morning, chilly or warm, children under three are woken up by parents or house helps to get ready for school. In the evening, the children are released late, and given homework. And still some are expected to go to school on weekends.

Education Minister Sam Ongeri’s ban of holiday tuition has fallen on deaf years.

Experts say children should spend 70 per cent of their time in school playing or engaging in creative activities. Photos: Jenipher Wachie/Standard

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Most culpable are the middle-class private academies where timetables are heavily influenced by the cutthroat competition to emerge tops at the national exams.

Experts now argue that "parents are not allowing children to be children".

Psychologist Charles Kimamo says children should be allowed enough sleep since it is an important aspect of childhood development.

"If they are woken up that early while they are that young, it could lead to confusion," said Kimamo. The expert warns that taking the children to bed early does not solve the problem as this disrupts their sleeping pattern.

"They are young and do not understand why they are being forced out of their warm beds so early, at times even leaving their older siblings asleep. To them that is disturbance," he added, warning that Kenya could be raising a future generation that will be "very disturbed". Sociologist Paul Mbatia concurs. He argues that exposing kids to a school environment where stiff rules have to be enforced instils a culture of surveillance and dependency.

"There is a danger of exposing children to formal and constant instructions at this tender age because it denies them a chance to be creative," he said.

Dependency culture

This, the sociologist warns, cultivates a culture of dependency where they have to be spoon-fed even as adults. In 2006, the Education Ministry attempted to rein in the practice by coming up with an Early Child Development (ECD) policy, which dictates the type of education that should be given to children from birth to age eight. At this age, the policy notes that the children should be between day care centres and Standard Two.

But today, Class Four has pupils aged eight — those who enrolled in school earlier than the recommended age. The policy sets the recommended age for primary school enrolment at age six. But before this age, the children could enrol for pre-primary education, though not so early in life.

Ms Virginia Wangari, the ministry’s public relations officer, says parents who do not wish to stay at home with children should take them to day care centres and not formal schools. But Ms Maria Awiti, a parent, says schools have become the best places to leave her child while she and her husband go to work. "When our daughter goes to school, then we don’t have to pay a house help. We also want her to start schooling early," she said.

Holistic needs

However, the ECD policy stipulates that infants have "holistic needs" that cannot all be met in schools. "The needs they have at this age include nutritional, nurturing, protection, health, stimulation and training," said Wangari, adding that parents, teachers and community all have a complementary role to play for the attainment of the needs.

She also blamed parents for allowing their young ones to leave the houses so early, although experts are unanimous that the trend has been brought about by the competition in the education sector.

"It is tough to be a student in Kenya; it is even tougher to be in primary or secondary schools than in college or university," said Mbatia. He said pegging success on academic excellence has pushed parents to engage in unorthodox tactics to ensure their children excel in national examinations.

"In such a scenario, parents will not hesitate to encourage teachers to hold their children for the longest time possible and if the parents are working and do not have a house help, then they will be killing a bird with two stones," he said.

Kimamo said the education system is designed in a way that toddlers are being stuffed with a lot of information, instead of playing. "Play is important for children because it is a way of intellectual stimulation and burning calories, since they do not work like adults," he said.

Wangari agrees that academies out to excel in national examinations are employing unconventional tactics to ensure their students pass.

"The parents are helping them with this one. How do you take your child to a school where their rights are abused?" posed the PRO, advising parents to report such schools to the ministry.

Education expert Prof Ruth Oniang’o proposes that children should remain with their parents until age three when they should start attending nursery school. "

At this stage, they should attend school from around 8.30am. and go home at noon, after spending time playing," she said.

Kimamo echoed Oniang’o’s sentiments that young children should spend more time playing than studying.

Oniang’o adds that taking toddlers to school at 6.30am overburdens their brains, robs them of all-important parental care and disrupts their social lives. Kimamo says children’s concentration span is short and thus need variety in the learning process.

Irresponsible generation

Catholic cleric Fr Vincent Wambugu says the emerging trend might bring up a generation of educated but irresponsible people.

To him, parents are not only over burdening their children but have also abdicated their roles in parenting. "They are dumping their vulnerable children to teachers yet they can’t tell which teacher has good or loose morals.

But when parents take part in the upbringing of the child at this tender age, they can note and correct bad behaviours early in life," said Wambugu.

About Early childhood development and education (ECDE)

In Kenya, pre-school education is not compulsory; hence attendance is not a prerequisite for joining Class One.

Pre-school education caters for children between the ages three and five years.

Since 1990, 35 per cent of children aged three to five currently have been accessing ECDE services.

In this area, Kenya is fourth in Africa with only Mauritius, Namibia and Ghana having a higher proportion of children receiving ECD services.


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