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Community pre-schools boost girls' learning

In a country where half the population are children, making sure that early education is accessible to all girls and boys plays an important role in lifting families and communities out of poverty.

Natasia, 5 years-old, is playing at a Plan International-supported pre-school in Aileu.
Natasia, 5 years-old, is playing at a Plan International-supported pre-school in Aileu.

Half of Timor-Leste’s population are children, but only 17% get any pre-school education. Families living in rural and often hard to reach areas are choosing to keep children at home until they are older, because it is unsafe to get to the pre-schools already in place on their own. Particularly vulnerable, girls are often the ones who miss out the most.

Plan International Timor-Leste is working with the Ministry of Education and communities themselves to provide community-based pre-schools in isolated villages where children are currently missing out. Living in a small village in Aileu, a mountainous municipality of Timor-Leste, Natasia is a bright-eyed 5 year-old girl benefitting from the early childhood care and development programme implemented in her community.

Getting the right start

Used to staying with their mothers while they take care of the garden and the house during the day, young girls in Timor-Leste often lack the social skills necessary to interact with children and adults other than the ones of their own family, and struggle to find their place when they start their education later in life.

Providing a space where children can learn and play together from an early age is essential in building their confidence and gaining the physical, social-emotional and cognitive and language skills making them ready to enter primary school.

When observing Natasia in the pre-school classroom, it is obvious that she already found her stride. As soon as the volunteer facilitator announces playtime, Natasia and her best friend run around and grab all the toys they can, before building brick pyramids and plastic castles with the other children.

But playing isn’t the only thing they do here. “I learn about letters, number and colours, and I can even read and write!” says Natasia.  

Isabel is a volunteer facilitator at Natasia's pre-school.
Isabel is a volunteer facilitator at Natasia's pre-school.

None of this would be possible without committed preschool facilitators and volunteers. They all received training from Plan International in order to ensure children receive a quality education right from the start.

Isabel is in charge of Natasia’s class, and she proudly explains the changes she sees in children’s behaviours after only a few months of being in her class: “children become much more disciplined and attentive after a few weeks. They learn to clean after themselves and share toys with the other children,” she says.     

Brighter futures

There is a huge amount of evidence showing that children who participate in early childhood development programs tend to be more successful in later schooling, are more competent socially and emotionally, and show higher verbal and intellectual development.

Natasia’s mother is quick to confirm those statements. She came to pick her daughter up from the pre-school, her youngest son wrapped around her waist, and explains the benefits of early education for her daughter: “I can see a lot of changes in my daughter’s behaviour. She now has a better mentality and is more attentive to what I tell her.” she said. “I like seeing how focused she is when she draws and writes, it makes me hopeful that she will become a good student and someday have a good job,” she continues, while observing Natasia through the classroom window.

Natasia's mother is picking her up from the pre-school.
Natasia's mother is picking her up from the pre-school.

Changing attitudes

In Natasia’s community, the pre-school attendance rate is now close to 100%. This success is partly due to the fact that the programme puts an emphasis on educating parents through parenting sessions. The goal is to emphasize the importance of an early education for their children, especially girls who are most at risk of missing out on an education later in life.

Fathers are often the most difficult to convince, that is why the programme dedicates weekly sessions to them. While raising their awareness about gender roles and responsibilities, they are encouraged to get engaged in their children’s learning and take steps to be more involved in their lives. As the father of a 3 year-old boy attending the same pre-school said: “Before I heard the information from the parent’s sessions, I understood the duties of a father towards his child but I did not do it. But now I understand and I practice little by little with my children, I play with my son, learn about his day at school and tell stories to my children at home.”


Plan International Timor-Leste’s ECCD programme is supported by Plan International Finland.