Early Childhood Care and Education in Kenya

Early Childhood Care and Education in Kenya

Mbugua, Tata J

A relatively young profession in Kenya, early childhood care and education (ECCE) has experienced tremendous growth at all levels.

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 (ECCE)

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 underdevelopment.”

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 high-lighted the importance of universal primary education as a basic right. This marked the first step in an ongoing effort to link early childhood and primary education.

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; Pala, 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 children.

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.

Collaborative Partnerships

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 English.

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 subcenters 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 education.

ECCE Curriculum

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, or 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 fees 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. 23).

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 their situation.

Addendum (11/03)

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

Tata J. Mbugua is Assistant Professor, Education Department University of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

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