Recent years have seen a global endeavor to prioritize early
childhood care and education as a foundation for later learning and
development, as evidenced by the Global Guidelines for Early Childhood
Education and Care in the 21st Century (Association for Childhood
Education International/World Organization for Early Childhood, 1999).
Such efforts are a response to a variety of complex social issues and
economic trends. These forces, which are referred to here as
"complex family stressors," include, but are not limited to,
societal changes due to industrialization, the increased number of women
with young children entering the labor force, families with two working
parents, a rise in the number of single parents, and the demise of
traditional systems of child care and extended family support systems
(Driscoll & Nagel, 2002; Graves, Gargiulo, & Sluder, 1996).
This article will provide an overview of early childhood care and
education (ECCE) in Kenya. Specific emphasis is placed on the historical
development of ECCE, the administrative organization, the collaboration
among various agencies in Kenya, ECCE curriculum, and teachers'
professional training. A relatively young profession in Kenya, ECCE has
experienced tremendous growth at all levels.
Definitions of early childhood care and education differ around the
world (Swiniarski, Breitborde, & Murphy, 1999). The more
industrialized nations consider early childhood to be the period from
birth through age 8 (Essa, 1999; Wortham, 2000), while developing
nations focus on birth through age 6 (Eville-Lo & Mbugua, 2001;
UNICEF, 2002). Regardless of such determinations, the increased interest
in early childhood education around the world reflects respective
nations' and/or societies' particular philosophical beliefs
about children (Graves et al., 1996). Accordingly, children may be
viewed as: growing plants that need nurturance, miniature adults,
natural and national resources that need to be nurtured, and/or as
future investments critical to the sustenance of a society and its
ability to compete in the technological age (Essa, 1999).
The belief that early learning begets later learning and success,
just like early failure breeds later failure, has been validated in both
economic and educational research (Boocock, 1995; Heckman, 1999).
According to the World Development Report (Jaycox, 1992), education and
economic development are positively correlated, making education
intrinsic to development. Therefore, the potential long-term benefits
for children's cognitive and social development (Barnett, 1995;
Gonzalez-Mena, 2000) have inspired increased interest in early childhood
education and care. This interest continues to be championed by
UNICEF's health and nutrition programs (UNICEF, 2002).
The Historical Development of Early Childhood Care and Education
Situated on the eastern coast of Africa, Kenya gained its
independence from British colonial rule in 1963. Nearly half of
Kenya's population of 30 million is below the age of 15 (World Fact
Book, 2001). The infant mortality rate is 67.99 per 1,000 live births,
while the life expectancy is 46.5 years for men and 48.4 years for women
(World Almanac, 2002). Kenya is a multilingual and multicultural nation,
with 42 different languages spoken, including Bantu, Arabic, and Nilotic
(Bogonko, 1992). English is the official language and the main medium of
instruction from preschool to tertiary levels of education. Ki-Swahili
is the national language and is taught from preschool to high school. As
a result, most children in Kenya are fluent in both languages, in
addition to the vernacular spoken at home. This multilingualism
heightens Kenyans' understanding of other cultures.
Kenya is the only African nation with an established early
childhood education program, and the initiative has had a significant
impact on its citizens. Kenyans perceive education as a key to success
in life, facilitating social mobility and personal development
(Nkinyangi, 1982). A number of theoretical perspectives focus on
education's pivotal role in human growth and development
(Mbugua-Murithi, 1997). The modernization theorists contend that
education transforms individual values, beliefs, and behaviors, which
leads to development (Benavot, 1992). As a result, Kenya has seen a
clamoring for and expansion of education at all levels (Mutero, 2001;
Mwiria, 1990), including nursery schools, child care centers,
kindergartens, and preschools.
The first recorded school for young children in Kenya was founded
at Rabai (a coastal province) in 1886 by the Church Missionary Societies
(Bogonko, 1992; Eshiwani, 1989). The first early care centers can be
traced to the 1940s, when British colonists established centers to serve
both European and Asian children. During the same period, the colonial
government established early childhood care centers for Kenyan children
living on the tea, coffee, and sugar plantations. These centers were set
up in response to Mau Mau uprisings and struggles for independence
(Kanogo, 1988). The centers were nonacademic child care settings and
only provided custodial care, a situation that persisted until the early
1970s (Kabiru, Njenga, & Swadener, 2003).
Kenya's system of early childhood care and education reflected
a separate and stratified society, with Europeans receiving educational
resources superior to that received by people from Asian and Arab
cultures; Africans came last. The colonial government argued that the
different races needed the kind of education that was deemed
"appropriate" for their respective positions in colonial life
(Kiluva-Ndunda & Mumbua, 2001). According to Rodney (1981), this
colonial schooling approach was akin to "education for
In 1954, UNICEF started supporting early childhood development and
education in Kenya. Its focus was support for the health of mother and
child. In later years, UNICEF expanded beyond the goals of child
survival to include development and education (UNICEF, 2002).
A massive expansion of early childhood care and education centers
throughout the country followed Kenya's independence in 1963. The
new Kenyan sovereign state articulated the educational goals as national
development, "Kenyanization" of the curriculum, respect for
Kenyan culture, social equality, and national unity and collaboration
(Eshiwani, 1990, 1993). Next, the Ominde Commission of 1964 highlighted
the importance of universal primary education as a basic right. This
marked the first step in an ongoing effort to link early childhood and
The expansion in education was given impetus by President Jomo
Kenyatta's call for a national philosophy of Harambee, which means
"Let's pull together." Historically, Harambee has been a
national strategy for mobilizing communal labor groups in order to
achieve certain education and socioeconomic goals. Early care and
education of children was considered to be a community concern
necessitating collaboration. Communities raised money to purchase land
and other materials to build schools (Mbugua-Murithi, 1996); the labor
was provided free of charge by community members. Consequently, the
number of preschools and nursery schools continued to expand.
Many Kenyan women formed groups to champion for and sustain early
childhood education and care, adopting a variety of networking
strategies through women's self-help groups (Mbugua-Murithi, 1997).
The groups would identify educated members of the community to be
preschool teachers. These groups also were organized to generate income,
build the nursery schools and primary schools, and establish adult
literacy projects (Mutiso, 1987; Pale, Awori, & Krystal, 1983).
Although some of these initial programs were maintained within a regular
school building, others were placed in individual homes, makeshift
sheds, or even outdoors, under trees.
ECCE in Kenya rapidly expanded; by 1970, the increasing
participation of Kenyan women in the labor force, the growing number of
female-headed households (Adams & Mburugu, 1994), and changing
family structures and child-rearing practices created new demands for
external support. The community alone could no longer be the primary
provider of nutrition, health care, and education for preschool
Consequently, the government encouraged the formation of
partnerships as a way to coordinate resources and share costs of early
childhood care and education. The Ministry of Education became involved
in overall administration, policy-making, provision of grants for
training, and professional guidance of preschool education. The Ministry
of Culture and Social Services was responsible for training teachers and
paying their salaries.
In the 1970s, the government entered into partnerships with
communities and other institutions engaged in the provision of preschool
education in Kenya. These partnerships involved nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs), parastatal bodies, religious organizations, the
Bernard van Leer Foundation, The Aga Khan Foundation, and UNICEF.
Parents and local communities continue to contribute significantly
to the development of early childhood education programs in a variety of
ways. They pay for their children's school fees and teacher
salaries; in some preschools, parents initiate community-based meal and
monitoring programs. They also help gather materials, using locally
available resources, to make children's toys.
In addition, families and community members have provided land for
school buildings and playgrounds, and they help construct and maintain
these sites. Community members also have undertaken the responsibility
of cultural transmission through language in very creative ways. For
example, they collect stories, riddles, poems, and games that are edited
and distributed by the respective programs in local dialects and
It is clear that the tradition in Kenya of communities cooperating
to provide early childhood education and care has benefited everyone.
The community members provide wisdom, insight, and expertise while
promoting the value of using traditional weaning foods, sharing mother
tongue stories, and providing intergenerational care. One elderly leader
of a women's group stated, "Our foundation has been sustained
through a culture of giving back." In turn, the communities'
children, their most valuable resource, are provided appropriate and
culturally relevant early care and education.
Administrative and Organizational Structure of the Early Childhood
Care and Education
Since the mid-1970s, significant governmental initiatives have
emphasized the importance of providing care and education in preschools.
Two notable initiatives are the Gachathi and Kamunge educational
commissions, from 1976 and 1988, respectively, which play key roles in
creating greater recognition of preschool education within the Ministry
of Education. In 1972, a 10-year Preschool Education Project was
undertaken at the Kenya Institute of Education by the Ministry of
Education and the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The main objective of the
research project was to improve the quality of preschool education
through three key areas: 1) development of training models for ECCE
personnel; 2) development of a quality curriculum; and 3) development of
support materials for use by children, teachers, and trainers.
In 1984, the Ministry of Education established the National Center
for Early Childhood Education (NACECE), a national endeavor aimed at
harmonizing the growth, evaluation, and oversight of early childhood
education. A year later, a network of sub-centers was established at the
district level. These centers were called District Centers for Early
Childhood Education (DICECE) (Gakuru, Riak, Ogula, Mugo, & Njenga,
1987) (see Table 1).
A variety of institutions are charged with the responsibility of
training early childhood educators. These institutions fall under the
auspices of the Ministry of Education, in collaboration with the Kenya
Institute of Education and the Kenya Institute of Special Education. For
logistical purposes, these institutions range from local training
centers (the DICECE) to national training centers (the NACECE) and local
universities. The training levels are organized in such a way as to
cater to the various needs of the ECCE professionals, offering
prospective teachers short courses, two-year diploma courses, a
four-year bachelor's degree, and master's programs.
A variety of degree programs in early childhood education are
offered at Kenyatta University. This is the only institution in Africa
with an operational bachelor's degree in early childhood, and it
remains the only institution in Africa offering a master's degree
in early childhood education. Currently, with assistance from the World
Bank, the university is piloting a doctoral program in early childhood
For many years, the role of preschools was considered one of
providing custodial care and security, and preparing children for formal
schooling. Through community collaboration, attempts have been made
through NACECE and DICECE to ensure a child-centered curriculum that is
developmentally appropriate. This focus on universal best practices
emphasizes the total, of holistic, development of the child, rather than
formal rote learning. Specifically, much attention has been given to the
important role of play in stimulating young children's development.
Teacher education focuses on equipping preservice students with the
skills and dispositions that will make them culturally responsive and
effective in preschool classrooms. This educational strategy ensures
that teachers have a strong foundation in theories of child development
and an understanding of children's developmental needs, and that
they are responsive to and appreciative of the various cultural and
linguistic backgrounds of young children. The Kenya Institute of Special
Education (KISE) also ensures that teachers take courses that equip them
with the knowledge and skills to work with children with disabilities.
Teachers also learn how to make toys and other learning materials using
locally available resources.
Challenges to ECCE in Kenya
Because of regional disparities in access to early childhood care
and education, enrollment levels in the rural areas are acutely low
compared to those in the urban areas (Kola, 2001). The Maasai migratory
community in Kenya arguably has the least access to early childhood
education and care (Phillips & Bhavnagri, 2002). Poverty and the
decline of Kenyan agriculture have resulted in widespread rural to urban
migration. This phenomenon has resulted in what Kilbride and Kilbride
(1990) describe as dislocation.
These regional disparities and their attendant consequences--the
lack of, or poor quality of, educational experiences for children living
in the same country--reflect a similar situation in the United States,
as is poignantly articulated by Kozol (1991). The factors involved are
mutually reinforcing and include political, social, and
economic-budgetary issues. The resulting outcomes of unequal education
in these two countries come at great human cost to all the children, and
ultimately to the future development of human capacity. One teacher
aptly describes the phenomenon and its adverse effects on American
children as "a bunch of flowers growing in a garbage can"
(Children in American Schools video with Bill Moyers, 1996).
Kenya also suffers from the heavy load of debt it pays to the World
Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These debt-servicing programs
have led to reductions in government spending for subsidized education,
health care, and school-related expenses. As a result, families pick up
the tab. As one irate mother in the Kisumu municipality said of her
plight, "Books, uniforms, building fund, admission lees are all
required, and if you do not have them, children are sent home!"
(Swadener, Kabiru, & Njenga, 2000, p. 176). Ironically, the negative
impact of these experiences in both countries has been corroborated by a
World Bank report that stated, "Poverty-related deprivation
contributes to low educational attainment ..." (Young, 2001, p.
The main challenge facing early childhood care and education in
Kenya today is that of harmonizing curriculum and teaching methodologies
to help ease children's transition from kindergarten to the primary
grades. Educators have criticized the emphasis on an exclusively
academic curriculum versus a play-centered and developmentally
appropriate curriculum in some preschools and kindergartens (Mutero,
2001). This considerable pressure to excel is evident in both Kenya and
the United States from the early years on.
Quality versus Quantity
In the 1980s and 1990s, an increased number of early childhood care
and education centers have been established in Kenya that vary in
quality, curriculum, instruction, and organization. The number of early
childhood care and education centers increased from 16,329 in 1990 to
23,977 in 1998. During the same period, the enrollment rose from 844,796
to 1,076,606 (Kola, 2001).
There are private and public preschools, nursery schools, and
kindergartens in both rural and urban settings. The private centers
include Montessori schools in the capital city of Nairobi, which are
similar to any found in the Western world. The increase in private and
for-profit preschools, especially in the urban centers of Nairobi,
Mombasa, Eldoret, and Nakuru, has been prompted by the unofficial
requirement that children entering primary school demonstrate school
readiness skills typically developed in a kindergarten or preschool
setting. However, these preschool settings vary in quality, from those
that are well equipped with ample resources, including computers and
indoor and outdoor play areas and equipment, to those that are in need
of resources, especially in urban slums and rural areas.
The public care centers also range in variety and scope, from those
that exist within the regular primary schools to those that are run by
volunteer organizations such as the van Leer Foundation, government
preschools, religious organizations, and various charities. A unique
early childhood care and education setting is Nyumbani Diagnostic
Center, which serves HIV/AIDS orphans in Nairobi who would otherwise be
stigmatized or rejected. The Center has a unique setup that aims, in
part, to place the young children in the care of foster families.
The field of early childhood care and education in Kenya is
expanding at a tremendous rate. Various efforts by the government,
communities, and other collaborating partners have resulted in
intersectoral collaboration and a variety of education settings
available to young children. This growth in ECCE in Kenya is a
reflection of the nation's quest for an educated population with a
focus on early success as a foundation for later success. Less than
sufficient teacher training, regional disparities, lack of harmonized
curricula, and the availability of quality preschools are continuing
challenges. Nevertheless, Kenya remains the only country on the African
continent with an established ECCE infrastructure; it is, therefore,
drawing many African ECCE professionals to its training programs, while
providing models for other African countries to consider and adapt to
The original manuscript was written prior to the general and
presidential elections in Kenya in December 2002, which ushered in a new
government after 39 years of one-party (Kenya African National
Union--KANU) rule. The new government (National Rainbow Coalition--NARC)
has established a number of policy issues affecting children and
families. Notable among these is a policy to provide free and compulsory
primary education, in line with the Children's Act passed in 2002.
The new policies further conform to the international charters that
Kenya has ratified; including the Rights of the Child; Declaration on
Education for All at the World Education Conference in Jomtien,
Thailand, in 1990, and the 2000 World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal
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Tata J. Mbugua is Assistant Professor, Education Department,
University of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
FUNCTIONS OF THE NACECE AND DICECE
National Center for Early District Centers for Early
Childhood Education (NACECE) Childhood Education (DICECE)
Training of personnel for ECCE Training of preschool teachers and
other personnel at the district
Development and dissemination of Supervision and inspection of
the curriculum for ECCE programs preschool programs at the district
Idenfying, designing, undertaking, Mobilization of the local
and coordinating research in ECCE community in the preschool program
in order to improve the care,
health, nutrition, and education
of young children
Coordinating and liaising with Participating in the evaluation of
external and internal partners, preschool programs, and carrying
and informing the public of the out basic research on the status
needs and development of the ECCE of preschool children, in and out
program of school
Offering services and facilitating Development of the preschool
interaction between agencies and curriculum