Kindergarten in Khartoum

This week I was fortunate to visit a nursery in Sudan for children between the ages of 2 – 5. I was really impressed by the owner’s energy and obvious dedication to the children who attend her nursery. The facilities could be considered basic compared to European preschools but there were several rooms all furnished with a wide variety of toys, costumes, and places for the young ones to play.

As she showed me around she told me about the expectations that some of the parents have of the nursery. The children’s parents, she explained, had unrealistic expectations about the amount of reading and writing the children would be during their time there, as well as the amount of progress in these areas that children could make at this age.

She told me, rather mischievously, that she usually responds by asking the parents if little Ahmed could go to the toilet by himself, or whether little Silvia had learnt how to play nicely with other children yet. Her point, I believe, was that aside from the already challenging task of managing many young children of different ages and from various backgrounds who simply want to run around and play, the priority should be with a different set of skills than reading and writing.

I have to say that I agree with her. I think a large part of a child’s education, whether that be at school or at home, should be concerned with what we as adults often refer to as soft skills; in short — learning how to do essential things and in particular how to get on with others. So much of our lives are dependent on figuring things out and interacting well with other people; and giving precedent to this will stand a child in good stead for a future in whatever direction the future adult decides to go in. After all, good handwriting, a large vocabulary or high IQ might get someone an interview but it won’t get them any further if they aren’t able to convince the interviewer of their value or to cultivate fruitful connections with colleagues.

This is not to say that the varying forms of literacy need take a back seat, of course. Our children’s ability to read and write, to utilise technology, and to use numbers is fundamental. But, where does this engagement with words, numbers, and learning more broadly begin? In my personal opinion, parents are just as responsible for a child’s development as their teachers are, and in fact, the strategies for learning can be composed by both parties just as the subsequent successes and failures can be shared by both teachers and parents.

Among the coloured balls and writing desks in the nursery in Khartoum I saw children who loved to play and needed help simply with the more basic things in life — how to put back on a shoe that has slipped off, why we don’t hit a friend who is wearing the only Spiderman costume, and when to listen to others.

The real challenge is how to harness this power of play and then how to nurture the natural inquisitiveness that a child shows, to ensure that once the parents and teachers have provided a suitable framework, the child can blossom into a well-rounded, enthusiastic, independent and lifelong learner.

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