This June, the Kiddies Education Center of Puttalam, Sri Lanka invited All Our Kin educational consultant Quinn Hunter McGonagle to share her knowledge of early childhood education with parents and staff. The Center provided funding for Quinn to spend two weeks in Sri Lanka and to conduct a series of trainings and conversations with members of the Puttalam community. Quinn’s trip is not only a chance for All Our Kin to collaborate with educators in an entirely new way, but also a chance for us all to reflect on the universal goal of high-quality experiences for all children in the first years of life. She shares some of her thoughts and observations below.
Sri Lanka is called “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean,” named for its natural beauty. And beautiful it was. Not only the landscape, but the people I encountered were truly noble, kind, curious, and highly knowledgeable about their natural landscape. I witnessed an expert coconut-picker who was generous enough to share with me the delicious and refreshing king coconut milk straight from the tall tree under the scorching-hot sun. I engaged in long, in-depth conversations with local people about the history of Sri Lanka, the benefits of the ancient Silk Road during World War II, and the rich and very diverse cultures, religions and languages while bouncing along a dirt road in an auto cart. I visited a prawn farm and noticed what a huge undertaking raising millions of large and healthy shrimp is. Although I learned about Sri Lanka’s rich heritage and how they prepare the worlds best tea, the purpose of my travels was to be immersed in the early childhood education environment in a small town on the west coast of the island country, Puttalam.
My mission was to set out to the other side of the globe as an All Our Kin educational consultant, with the intention of educating the staff, parents, and local community members on the importance of early childhood education. Most of my work was conducted at a local preschool, Kiddies Educational Centre (KEC), which funded my trip. Before I dive into the educational experience I had in Puttalam, let me step back. Education before formal schooling in the elementary school years is not a top priority for the majority of people in Sri Lanka. There is no such thing as a hired babysitter or a nanny, and there is no concept of family child care. Most women stay home with their young children until they are ready for an official classroom experience, full of reading, writing, and learning the English language. This is why it was crucial for me to engage with the family members in Puttalam, with the goal of at least planting the seed of the importance of care and education for the youngest Sri Lankan children. I want to be clear that I wasn’t only promoting formal preschool education, I was also sharing the value in ordinary, daily learning experiences that can take place at any moment, and in any environment (the home, the open market, walking down the street—anywhere!). I told families that they can educate their children by merely engaging them in fun and creative experiences throughout any old typical encounter. This was my message: talk to your children, listen to your children, ask open-ended questions, and support their healthy development by letting them explore their environment in order to learn about the workings of the world and how to relate positively to the people in it.
One of our All Our Kin’s family child care providers, Shamira, who now runs her own family child care business here in Connecticut, was the inspiration for this entire undertaking. In September of 1995, Shamira founded the preschool, KEC in her hometown of Puttalam, Sri Lanka, and invited me to conduct consultation meetings and a community-wide education seminar, knowing how much the local families in her community needed a nudge in the right direction. Now that Shamira lives in the States, her sister, Asmara, has taken over as Director of KEC. Working closely with both these strong, smart, and forward-thinking women over the weeks, helped make the dream of my vision a reality.
Much of the two weeks I was in Sri Lanka were spent visiting KEC, meeting the children and staff, preparing for large-scale meetings, and finally having the meetings themselves. It’s hard to describe in words how welcomed I felt upon first walking into the preschool; the children were holding a welcome sign, I was given a handmade paper flower bouquet (that somehow made it safely back to the USA and is proudly displayed on my desk), and kind words of welcome from the teachers. It brought tears to my eyes. After travelling 30 hours door-to-door, from New Haven to Puttalam, this was such a comforting sight.
After a couple of informal visits to the preschool, we facilitated an initial meeting for the mothers of the preschool students, to inform them of what the basics of child development are, and to raise the interest level of our upcoming formal seminar training. Of the 60 or so attendees at this initial meeting, about 90% of them joined our seminar.
The seminar was held down the road from the home where we were living, at Nuhuman Reception Hall, complete with a projector, a room large enough to hold 300 people, and children’s books and wooden blocks we brought from America on display. At first only a handful of participants were present, then suddenly, we counted over 100 people from throughout the community there! It was a great turnout and highly successful seminar. In the months leading up to my trip abroad, I had prepared a presentation entitled, “The What, Why and How of Early Childhood Education” that included major topics such as brain development, positive relationships and experiences, the five senses, theorists’ and psychologists’ research-based perspectives, and how children learn and develop within developmental domains such as physical growth, social/emotional growth, language acquisition, and cognitive development.
At both the initial meeting and the big seminar, waves of people approached me afterwards to ask questions, share their struggles with their own children, and seek guidance for raising a healthy, happy child. Wow! I was so impressed, first that they were actually interested in the content, and second that they truly wanted to broaden their perspective of how children learn and grow.
A final meeting consisted of just the KEC teaching team. The only hour we had free was just before I departed for the airport, so that’s when we met. This was a very rejuvenating and rewarding experience. The teachers were completely engaged in our dialogue about how to have positive interactions with children. At the meetings close, the staff presented me with a beautiful, handmade basket, a DVD of the seminar (how they managed to prepare this in just a few days is beyond me), and an incredibly special banner thanking All Our Kin for our efforts.
As a representative of All Our Kin in Sri Lanka, I saw that our mission is not only applicable far beyond Connecticut, but is indeed universal. The conversations that our model of teaching and mentoring sparked in Puttalam are just as engaged as those in New Haven, and women leave both with a renewed sense of community and empowerment. From the beginning, All Our Kin’s work has stemmed from a core commitment: to high-quality early education for all children. This commitment transcends the borders of our state and nation, and has the potential not only to move individuals, but also to support collaborative learning with early childhood educators around the world.