The morning rush hour in Addis Ababa is beyond alive. People are lined up for blocks to catch the city bus to work. Drivers wheeling overcrowded “blue donkey” taxis hustle to move people from the hubs of Kazanches and Mexico Square. Shopkeepers are preparing to sell everything from bananas and pineapple to injera and freshly butchered beef. Shoe shines, fresh fried donuts and fresh brewed coffee. It’s all for sell.
In the midst of the movement of rush hour, Head to Toe Early Learning Center and Kindergarten sits on a quiet street in the heart of Addis Ababa, just past the busy Meganegna roundabout. The beautifully manicured garden that surrounds the school is a unique and rare greenspace among the schools in Addis Ababa. It is here that Head to Toe provides a play-based curriculum for children ages 0-7 — something that didn’t exist before Jane Pyecha opened the school in 2009.
Pyecha, an experienced international educator, moved from the Middle East to Addis Ababa to teach preschool in an international school. After getting married and having her first child, the North Carolina native decided to lay down permanent roots in Ethiopia.
“Many years ago, when I was looking for a preschool for my own child, many of the schools were doing things that were not age appropriate, such as handwriting worksheets” says Pyecha. “It appeared that most preschools were in the business of ‘babysitting’ and not making much effort to interact constructively with the children.” Knowing that ages 0-5 are when a child’s brain develops the most, she set out to develop a play-based in-home preschool that would allow her to spend time with her new son at the same time serving the needs of two other families.
Eight years later, a manicured play yard equipped with seesaws, balance bikes, swings, and shade sails surround the school building. But it’s not just the beautiful play yard that makes this school different from the others. Three things are at the core of its uniqueness: Well-trained teachers; evidence-based teaching strategies; and an inclusive learning environment.
Jane Pyecha has been teaching for 24 years and is a specialist in teacher training and curricula development. She hires Ethiopian and foreign teachers not based on their credentials, but based on their love for children and willingness to learn. “I hire teachers that have strong English skills and have teaching in their heart,” says Pyecha. On top of this, her teachers receive ongoing professional development and weekly 1:1 coaching to learn new approaches as the needs of the students evolve. Giving the teachers the opportunities to advance their skills keeps the teaching fresh and has led to very low teacher turnover.
Evidence-Based Teaching Strategies, Play-Based Learning
There is no shortage of research on the importance of play in developing the minds of children ages 0-5. Head to Toe integrates the HighScope curriculum with directed, and self-directed group-style play. In the morning, you’ll find toddlers in circle time before choosing their first learning “stations.” At one station they learn cooperation by using magnetic blocks to build towers together; at the costume station they express creativity as they pretend to be doctors. Cooking play-doh burgers on a pretend grill teaches children self-confidence and responsibility.
Pyecha admits that her play-based approaches weren’t always welcome in the schools in Lebanon and Abu Dhabi, where highly structured “skill and drill” methods were preferred over “exploring and investigating.” But even there, she sold a few administrators on the play-based approach. “We are an active learning program,” says Pyecha. “Instead of doing worksheets, here children remember their letters by drawing them in the sand box. We focus on play-based learning because through play is how kids learn best. We want to make sure our kids have lots of different kinds of stimulation.” The children are constantly learning and they don’t even realize it.
In the afternoon, the kids are hard at work on a collaborative art piece. The teacher guides them in the creation of “deep art” that is worked on over several weeks, and where all of the ideas for how to construct a piece come from the children themselves. Creating the art over an extended period of time develops the child’s imagination, helps them to focus, and uses their analysis skills. No two pieces are alike.
Each year the children’s artwork is auctioned off in a swank fundraising event for a local charity. Parents dress up in bow ties and drink champagne and buy art that is truly deserving of a place in one’s home.
Family Support – Nannies & Children with Special Needs
Head to Toe offers two programs that foster inclusiveness in the community. The “Nanny and Me” program, is open to children ages 6 months to 2 years. Nannies are invited to bring infants to do activities, sing-alongs, and story-time up to five mornings a week. Nannies can then use the techniques the learn at home with the children.
A second program provides scholarships and a family support group for children with special needs. Children who would normally spend their entire lives hidden from society because of the stigma can enroll in Head to Toe’s full-day program — the only of its kind in the city. “We realized how little there was available to them,” Pyecha says. “They don’t get to see extended family. The kids truly don’t leave the house. I will never turn a child down if it’s at all possible.”
Head to Toe’s offering of a basic right to play is consistent with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that nations should provide opportunities for children to participate fully in cultural, artistic, recreational, and leisure activity. The parent support group shares resources, challenges, and successes. It also provides emotional support to the parents of children with special needs, which doesn’t really exist elsewhere.
A special education consultant has trained all of the teachers on strategies for interacting with children with special needs. “The staff have really become passionate about this group of children,” says Pyecha. “It’s hard for people to hear that their child has special needs. Sometimes when you’re the first person to say it they don’t want to accept it and you don’t see those people again. But other times they are grateful for the help, ” she adds. These children are able to come out and play, interact, and be a part of society.
Teaching Others How it is Done
Early childhood education in Addis Ababa continues to evolve. And as more expats and the Ethiopian diaspora are returning to Addis seek quality preschool education, most of the newly established schools are now play-based. To help develop these new schools, Pyecha provides individual and group consulting, and facilitates workshops and training for teachers, caregivers and parents on a variety of education topics that have been fundamental to Head to Toe’s success. She hopes to one day bring this kind of experience to vulnerable children such as refugees.
Pyecha advises anyone who wants to establish a school targeting a truly international population to understand the inherent challenge of working with many different cultures and social contexts. “You have to learn where the parents are coming from and what their experiences have been. If your approach is very different from what they know and expect, there will be some inherent barriers that have to be overcome.”
She also emphasizes the importance of her husband and business partner Teddy’s patience and savvy. As a native Ethiopian, his help was essential for navigating the culture and bureaucracy of establishing and maintaining a business there.
Pyecha is happy to have changed the face of early childhood education in Addis Ababa. Head to Toe also fulfilled her goal of providing high quality preschool education for her own two children. She hopes that the evolution will continue well into the future.
Jane Pyecha, International Education Specialist and Consultant, has been a leader and advocate in education, sharing her technical expertise with colleagues and administrators for 20+ years (15 internationally). Using her skills in assessment and adaptability she gears her teaching to each student’s learning capabilities to help them reach their individual levels of success. Contact Jane Pyecha on LinkedIn to learn more about her consulting services or about Head to Toe Early Learning Center and Kindergarten in Addis Ababa.