Building Blocks: Strengthening Early Childhood Development in Malawi and Zambia

In the U.S. we see the early years of a child’s life as a time for critical child development that sets the building blocks for successful growth and learning. Often we see preschools and kindergartens as providing opportunities for children to learn, play, and develop socially as well as physically. This often includes children learning to: vocalize their needs, increase their vocabulary, develop emotionally and socially, and strengthen school readiness skills such as letter and number recognition, sharing, and interpersonal communication.

In Africa, young children have the same needs, but many communities do not have early childhood development (ECD) centers or governmental policies in place to support holistic early childhood education. Therefore, many ECD centers may appear more informal, with children and caregivers meeting in a temporary structure or borrowed space. Though ECD centers may not always be designated structures, they work for the same goal of helping to better prepare preschool age children for school. These centers are often focused on nutrition, caregiver support, and maternal/child health.

The question for Firelight and for Firelight grantee-partners was, how could we expand and improve ECD opportunities for children living in Malawi and Zambia?

In February 2011, Firelight made 15 multi-year grants with a focus on strengthening early childhood development programs in Malawi and Zambia. These grants totaled $13,000 for each organization ($5,000 in year one and $8,000 in year two). This two-year program funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation also helped these groups to expand their technical expertise, bolster their ECD programs, and build the capacity of their organization overall.

The organizations have used the funds in a variety of ways, including:

  • Training caregivers and teachers on ECD fundamentals
  • Working with the Ministry of Health to obtain birth registrations and immunizations. In turn, this process decreased costs for families while simultaneously lessening the risk of disease for children and their community.
  • Starting revolving saving & loans circles that parents, usually mothers, can use to start or grow their own businesses to support and strengthen their family’s security.
  • Purchasing supplies like books, toys, and health kits for ECD centers.
  • Starting gardens that are used to provide meals to children at the center.
  • Building, expanding, or improving ECD centers in their community.

In August, this group of grantee-partners in both Malawi and Zambia came together in a final workshop. They shared best practices and challenges faced, and reflected on their participation in this project over the past two years.

Through the interactions of this ECD peer network, we’ve seen these 15 groups develop relationships that will far outlast the project. These networks will help organizations continue to improve their work for years to come and develop the strong foundation for children’s education.


This blog was written by Aili Langseth, Mia Schmid, and Kristen Molyneaux.