AUSTIN, Texas — A child’s early education is critical to their overall development. However, many children, especially those in low-income countries, go without any pre-primary education at all. This often leads to higher rates of school dropout, decreased employment outlooks and a reduced likelihood of escaping poverty. Early education in Africa is particularly inaccessible and has led to some of the poorest learning outcomes in the world. By increasing access to early education, the world can make sure that every child has a fair start.
The Importance of Early Education
Ninety percent of a child’s brain develops before they reach the age of 5, and during early childhood, the brain creates neural connections faster than at any other point in life. This makes these early years critical for ensuring a child’s long-term development. If children do not receive proper cognitive stimulation during this time, they may fail to develop important skills that they will need later in life.
Despite this, access to pre-primary education is unequally distributed across the world. In low-income countries, only one in five young children attends preschool. Even for the impoverished children who do attend, learning outcomes are often bleak — overcrowded classes, inadequate classroom resources and a lack of qualified educators can greatly diminish their learning experiences, according to UNICEF.
Africa and Early Childhood Education
Early education in Africa is especially neglected. Three out of four children do not attend any form of preschool in Central, West and sub-Saharan Africa, largely due to a lack of government investment. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 0.3% of the budget for public education goes toward pre-primary education. For comparison, North America and Europe spend around 9% on pre-primary education.
This lack of pre-primary opportunities contributes to the region’s high rates of education exclusion at other levels. As of 2019, only about 57% of sub-Saharan children complete primary school. Moreover, almost 60% of the region’s children between the ages of 15 and 17 are not in school at all. In fact, Africa is home to roughly one-third of all children that are out of school around the world, according to ReliefWeb.
Bolstering early education in Africa is an important step toward helping children succeed in school, which is exactly what Lively Minds seeks to accomplish. Lively Minds is an organization operating in Ghana and Uganda whose mission is to improve the care provided to preschool children in deprived communities.
Lively Minds enrolls parents in free training courses that teach them how to cognitively stimulate their children and provide better care at home. After completing these courses, parents return to their communities and organize play-based activities called Play Schemes, which encourage children to think critically and solve problems.
Lively Minds’ carefully crafted Play Schemes consist of six play stations that target aspects of “intellectual, language and socio-emotional” development. Activities include matching, counting, building, storytelling and outdoor games. The activities help children develop their imagination, pattern recognition, memory, literacy, numeracy and fine motor skills as foundational skills that greatly improve a child’s school readiness.
The Play Schemes include between 30 and 40 parents and can accommodate around 200 children every week. This means that each parent is responsible for up to six children, and considering that the region’s average pupil-teacher ratio is 37, this gives kids the opportunity to receive adequate care and attention.
In a study evaluating the impact of the Lively Minds program, researchers found that the overall cognition scores of participating children increased by 0.14 standard deviations as a result of noticeable improvements in numeracy and literacy. Children saw an equivalent reduction in conduct problems including lying, cheating and bullying.
This study also analyzed the cost-effectiveness of the program. It found that the average cost per child and per parent was approximately $37 and $150 respectively. Considering the aforementioned boost in cognitive skills, this study concluded that the program led to 1.7 to 2.5 additional years of schooling per $100 spent.
USAID Development Innovation Ventures Award
Thanks to these impressive results, the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded Lively Minds with the Development Innovation Ventures Award in 2021. Part of this award is a $3.5 million grant that Lively Minds will use to expand its reach. The organization plans to partner with the government of Ghana and scale the program up from six districts to 60 by the end of 2028. If this expansion goes to plan, the organization will reach 1.2 million children across the country with its life-changing childhood development programs.
The example set by Lively Minds provides an effective model for early education in Africa and other low-income countries. The cost-effective and parent-led nature of this model makes it easily scalable. This could help regions like sub-Saharan Africa improve their enrollment rates and learning outcomes. Doing so would help children live up to their full potential, equipping them with the basic tools to escape poverty and live fulfilled lives.
– Jack Leist