Furthering inclusive early learning in Papua New Guinea
“I was just roaming around the community all day, basically doing nothing,” Rueben (36) takes me on his journey to become a trained teacher in the Early Childhood Learning Center in Hobu, Papua New Guinea. When he was about 3 years old, polio left him partially paralysed. Over the years he recovered some of his movements, but a problem with his right leg requires him to use crutches today.
Rueben finished secondary school successfully but found little to keep him busy after.
Community church leaders convinced Rueben to try the teacher training at the newly-built Early Childhood Development (ECD) Learning Centre in the community. He did, and he completed the training. “I said it’s okay, I can see with my potential what to do and do what I like … now I feel proud to be a teacher.”
The day I meet Rueben is the first day of the school year at the Hobu ECD Learning Center. Parents of over 30 enthusiastic children, ages 3 to 5, welcomed the opportunity to bring their young ones for a morning of play, learning and care, and they’ll be able to do the same every morning. The building, and its brightly coloured playground, are the result of hard work by the parents and other community members. The learning and play materials inside were hand-made during teacher training. All using local materials. But it doesn’t end with the construction: on the first day of school all the parents brought a ‘bilum’ (a traditional, hand-made, colourful bag used everywhere in Papua New Guinea) filled with sticks, stones and bottlecaps. Each child will have their own ‘Math Bilum’, making learning fun both in school and at home.
Access for all students … and their teachers
When we arrive at the center, the finishing touches for the ramp are being put in place to ease access for children with disabilities — and for their teacher, Rueben. To make sure everyone has access to the facilities, the center has used inclusive design, making the environment disability-friendly, including the wide door of the newly constructed toilet that allows for wheelchair access.
Rueben tells me his disability never held him back from school or playing with his friends. But he knows that it is not the same for all children with disabilities in Hobu. We talk to twin girls Joyce and Jocelyn and their parents. Their mother discovered early on that Joyce didn’t develop the same way as her sister. They’ve not been able to see a doctor for a diagnosis, but Joyce’s weakness in muscles and overall development affected her, says her mother. “Because she was different and couldn’t go to school, we decided to leave both girls at home.”
With the opening of the ECD Learning Center, the parents grabbed the opportunity for Joyce to attend, and they hope this will be a good stepping stone for both girls to transition to primary school soon.
Here the children can develop at their own pace, making sure they grow and get ready for school.
“It will be fine when all children can come to school. They like playing and will also learn. It is good for their future”, says Rueben. For other children with disabilities in the community, Rueben thinks he can be a role model: “If they see I can do it, they will know they can too”.
UNICEF in Papua New Guinea
Hobu community lies on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea in Morobe Province. The province is the most populous province with a population of close to 700,000 people, speaking 101 different languages.
UNICEF Papua New Guinea, through the Government and in partnership with the Evangelical Lutheran Church and Ginigaoda Foundation, are working on Inclusive Early Childhood Development programs in Naweb District in Morobe Province. The program consists of training of IECD Teachers, Trainer of Trainers and Board of Management and Parenting Education. The teachers, trainers and BOM will work as volunteers as this is not part of the government structure.The program in Morobe is also supported by UNICEF Australia.
Community ownership is a key aspect of this programme where communities are mobilizing themselves and building classrooms and playgrounds for early learning centers.
Caroline den Dulk is the Regional Chief of Communication for UNICEF East Asia Pacific.