Tonga revamps early learning system placing play at the centre
The Sector > Quality > In The Field > Tonga revamps early learning system placing play at the centre

Tonga revamps early learning system placing play at the centre

by Freya Lucas

September 07, 2023

Tonga’s 200 early childhood teachers have been trained in the country’s new early childhood curriculum framework Learning through play the Heilala way, which uses play-based approaches through a Tongan cultural lens and is named after Heilala, the national flower of Tonga.


The Heilala curriculum was rolled out nationally in Tonga through a training of all early childhood education teachers, including those in the most remote island schools in the country. The training covered how to structure daily activities, establishing different play corners in the classroom and building positive relationships with children and their parents.


As part of an ongoing effort to strengthen early childhood education (ECE) in Tonga, the Ministry of Education and Training established 40 new government ECE centres, and developed the new national ECE curriculum framework to orient quality, relevant ECE for all centres, including government and community-based centres.


ECE teachers are also exploring how locally available materials can be used to support the new curriculum’s rollout.


Vulase Hafoka, Education Officer at the Ha’apai District Education Office, demonstrated how local materials had been used to make play areas, like a small traditional house made using the local dry grass; sandpits from the beach; and numbers on the walls carefully crafted using traditional ropes. The use of the local materials in the community ensures the sustainability of this new curriculum and its implementation.


Prior to the new curriculum, Ms Hafoka said, there were some ECE activities happening informally in the community with community members opening up their own homes to provide education for the younger children, but the importance of ECE was not well understood, and most parents did not send their children to these centres. 


Untrained teachers who were providing initial ECE classes were limited in their knowledge and understanding of developmental stages of children and most often implemented formal lessons inspired by primary schooling, rather than play-based early childhood approaches.


Ms Hafoka is passionate about changing this, and about providing quality learning for children from an early age. She actively mentors and supports the ECE teachers on the island.


“I am the first ECE teacher in Ha’apai and first ECE Officer in Ha’apai,” she proudly shared.


One important aspect of the new ECE curriculum is that it is meant to be inclusive and responsive to the individual needs of each child, while promoting examples of positive discipline and collaborative problem solving.


UNICEF provided technical and financial support for the development and roll-out of this new curriculum together with the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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