KUTAISI, Georgia (July 24, 2012) — Kindergarten No. 17 in Kutaisi, Georgia's second-largest city, seems at first glance like a typical Soviet-era establishment: large, imposing and utilitarian, surrounded by run-down apartment blocks.
In the past, a large state kindergarten of this kind—catering to some 600 children aged two to six—would have been run with military-like discipline. Children would sit in rows, facing the blackboard, with arms folded, learning by rote and speaking only when spoken to.
Now, however, the building's austere façade belies a remarkable transformation that has recently taken place. Inside, small groups of children are engaged in a variety of activities and guided play. Some are sitting on cushions in the reading corner, some are making hand puppets inspired by a recent outing to a puppet show, and others are doing role play. The colorful walls are covered with the children's work. While the classes are still large—on average 40 children in each, with one teacher and an assistant—the child-centered approach is radically different from that prevalent in the past.
"There's no doubt that the new approach is far better for the children," said Maya Kakhiani, a teacher of 20 years. "We are now able to work much more individually with children, focusing on their particular needs and interests, while they are more independent, more able to make choices and take initiative, and are learning important social skills."
Eka Nutsubidze, a mother of two young children, agrees. "Children are now learning to think for themselves. Before, it was one approach fits all. Children were effectively brainwashed. That's the way the system worked."
This dramatic change in attitude and approach began when the pre-primary education system in Georgia was decentralized in 2005, making local governments responsible for the establishment and oversight of pre-school institutions. Still, most have lacked the knowledge and skills to implement contemporary approaches to pre-school education. UNICEF has therefore been supporting the Government of Georgia, at national and local levels, to reform and develop the pre-school education sector.
One of UNICEF’s projects, carried out with civil society partners and financial support from IKEA, has focused on enhancing access to quality pre-school education in eight kindergartens in disadvantaged areas of Kutaisi municipality. Through the Center for Educational Initiatives (CEI), the project helped develop teaching methodology and materials, performed classroom refurbishment, and conducted training and capacity building for teachers and administrators.
"The training seminars have really been remarkably successful," said Zurab Paghava, CEI program manager. "Due to the motivation not only of teachers, but of the municipality itself, the project has extended to all 35 kindergartens in Kutaisi, and soon more than 400 teachers and administrators will have been trained in the progressive 'Step-by-Step' methodology."
Paghava watched as a room of more than 30 pre-school teachers—all of them women—took part in a training. "The levels of enthusiasm and understanding are generally very high, and there is a genuine desire to improve the way things have traditionally been in our pre-schools," he continued.
Kutaisi has seen a markedly upward trend in pre-school enrolment. Two years ago, 4,990 children were enrolled in 35 kindergartens. Currently, 8,120 children are enrolled, including 2,620 children aged one to two. According to Maka Dogonadze, deputy director of the Kutaisi Municipality Pre-School Union, this increase is due to several factors, including a new policy of accepting children from one year old (currently implemented in 15 kindergartens); the fact that children from the poorest families and minority groups have free access due to the social benefit voucher system; and overall improvements in the quality of teaching and learning.
"The reform benefits everyone: children, parents, teachers and all professionals—not just in the pre-school sector but in primary schools too, since children are now much better prepared for the next stage," said Dogonadze. "And now that we have the training and the capacity, scaling-up in terms of appropriate toys and learning materials will be easier. We have also learned how to adapt or recycle existing resources, to really make the most of what we already have."