By Rob McBride
MEEDHOO, Raa Atoll, Maldives, 22 December 2009 - The session is interactive, spontaneous and fun. Led by a teacher who turns the pages on a book to reveal different animals, the children eagerly raise their hands wanting to mimic the sound each makes. This pre-school has, like so many other schools here, undergone a child-friendly transformation since the tsunami five years ago.
The cheerfully decorated room is filled with books, games, toys and other materials to keep young minds engaged and interested. Through the open window, beyond the gentle surf of the shoreline and the sea, the neighbouring atoll islands appear as pencil thin lines on the horizon. An idyllic setting now, it is hard to imagine the terror that the wall of water must have produced on that fateful day in 2004.
Afnaan Anwar, 4, is one of the children benefiting from the post-tsunami changes. "I like playing with dolls the best," she said.
At the end of class, when the children have helped to tidy up, Afnaan is picked up by her mother, Varuda Gasim. Having brought up three older children, she is able to compare the schools now, with those that existed before.
"The teaching now is based far more on play and there are lots of materials for the children to use," she said.
'Everybody can write, everybody can read'
When she progresses to elementary school, Afnaan will enjoy a child-friendly atmosphere there too. In the nearby school, one class of students work in groups on a poster project, while in the next classroom, children are involved in an interactive word game with their teacher, Ahmed Sobah.
He has undergone training in child-friendly techniques, conducted by UNICEF.
"You notice the difference in the initiative children take," Mr. Sobah said. "They finish one task, and then move onto the next without being asked."
Mr. Sobah also believes the child-friendly changes have benefited the teachers as well: "The way I prepare for class and how I manage my classroom time is also helping the development of my own language skills," he said.
To support the changes in the education system, UNICEF has helped to establish Teacher Resource Centres throughout the atolls of the Maldives. Used by teachers and pupils alike, the centres offer some of the latest in high-tech teaching tools, such as interactive Smart Boards and broadband internet access, to achieve remarkable results.
"In every class we used to find six or seven students who can't read, who can't write," said Ibrahim Rasheed, co-ordinator of the centre. "But now you go and see. Everybody can write, everybody can read."
Getting parents involved
As classes end at the Meedhoo elementary school, the children's parents are invited in by the teachers, to share in the wrap-up session, explaining what the students have learned that day. Then, parents and children disperse for the day along the sandy lanes that criss-cross their island.
For UNICEF in the Maldives, the profound change in the education system has been one of the most satisfying achievements in restoring the islands to normalcy.
"Today, if you meet any child who has just graduated from a child-friendly school," said Mansoor Ali, UNICEF Representative in the Maldives, "he or she is bright, responsive, very confident and quite knowledgeable about the world."
Faced with the enormous challenges ahead due to climate change, such worldly knowledge will be especially vital for this next generation, who will have to play their part in ensuring their country's survival.