There were shy looks and even a few tears from the children when the group of strangers entered the small room and plopped ourselves on the floor. It wasn’t surprising. I got the feeling that the children probably didn’t see too many foreign visitors in their town, a remote village in the cornfields of rural Pakistan. But after a few minutes they got back to business—learning with a joyful and infectious enthusiasm.
The teacher took the children through a variety of activities: identifying colors and fruits and vegetables, counting, doing puzzles and other activities to build fine motor skills. Except for the fact that the counting aids were rocks and polished peach pits, and the space was tiny, we could have been at any preschool anywhere in the world. There was a library corner, a counting corner, a corner where colorful posters taught about the weather and plants and trees – many of the same elements you find in any early childhood classroom. And along the wall, each child had a folder with his or her own work carefully stored.
A little girl I met proudly showed me her work, taking each piece out of her folder and pointing proudly at her accomplishments. Her bright dark eyes shone with happiness as she showed me to another area in the room, before she and I did another puzzle, clearly her favorite activity in school.
All the colorful elements of the classroom had been produced by the enthusiastic woman who was the teacher – a local woman who provided a room in her house for the school and underwent regular training with Save the Children. She received a small stipend each month to teach 26 two to four year-olds everything that they need to know to be successful when they went on to primary school.
This school was also part of a new model in Pakistan that focuses on children ages 2-8. It works to ensure that these children get the most they can get from school, with a particular focus on literacy. Termed Literacy Boost, the program focuses on preparing children to learn to read—starting as early as preschool. But it’s not just a school or the center where Literacy Boost works: parents, Parent/Teacher Committees and whole communities are brought together to practice reading. Reading camps are run outside of school hours with children producing their own books and reading aloud to parents and friends, and lending libraries of books go home with children to be shared with families. The idea is to surround kids with opportunities to read and to practice reading, even if it’s simple storytelling with a picture book to follow along.
Pakistan has policies at the national and provincial level to make sure every child who has the right to go to school actually has a school to go to and a trained teacher. But in many rural areas, this universal access is not happening—and while primary school enrollment is 81% for boys, it is only 67% for girls. Programs like Literacy Boost are targeted for both boys and girls and run by teachers in local rural communities, and early pilots have shown remarkable progress in learning outcomes for children enrolled in the program.
It’s no puzzle: through the roll-out of these types of programs, more children like the little girl I met will get a chance at success, a chance to learn to read and write and move Pakistan ahead.