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Early Childhood Development (ECD) was not incorporated into humanitarian practice until 2009, and was not implemented in the cases studied here until 2011. Humanitarian-led ECD initiatives are still scarce and in the testing phase. This creates a great opportunity for research. It is important to develop a thorough study of the current ECD situation, assessing and evaluating these initial efforts before ideas are crystalized, scaled up and multiplied worldwide.


One of the issues facing the promotion of ECD is the sole focus on the formal educational facilities, the majority of which are top-down managed, funded by international NGOs, built in permanent structures, and taught according to a set curriculum, grades and accreditation once completed. This prescriptive education is perceived to be inherently good and the learning that happens outside of the class is largely disregarded.


In order to acknowledge learning happening outside the formal schooling facilities, some scholars in the 1960’s introduced the notion of lifelong learning and classified it as formal, non-formal and informal.

refugee education current focus
Diagram of potential learing environments in refugee camps

Acknowledging the whole built environment as a source of learning is important, as evidence in other contexts has demonstrated that the socio-cultural and built environments are critical for lifelong learning and development at an early age.As of the late 1950’s, Maria Montessori and the Reggio Emilia approach raised the idea of the “environment as an added educator.” 


Others examined spaces outside of the formal educational facilities, the effects of factors such as noise, temperature or crowding on young children’s learning. Colin Ward expanded onto the urban space, and Colin McFarlane and Kim Doveybroke up with the scalar understanding of space, conceiving the city instead as a learning assemblage. To date, however, none of this research was focused on the context of long-term, resource-scarce encampments’ in East Africa.

Time spent on formal educational facilities
Diagram of how children spend their days

Conversations about learning tend to typically focus on the schools, but especially for young children, the whole built environment is a learning source. In order to integrate spaces like homes, streets, toilets or common spaces and analyse them as learning settings, they are classified here into three categories: formal, non-formal and informal.


Based on Lynch’s and Latour’s works, data was collected and analysed from the children, their caregivers and education managers’ perceptions of spaces relevant for the direct and indirect learning of children aged 3-6 years old. This data was collected through semi structured interviews, questionnaires, focus groups discussions and transect walking.

Problems children face
Diagram of harmful elements for young children living in the camps

As data shows (see graphs above), the current situation is far from ideal: There exists increasing investment in ECD in Eastern Africa’s refugee camps, but this investment is mostly focused on formal settings, overlooking community initiatives and the built environment.




For Formal learning settings, cramming children in an enclosed space with poor sanitation, limited stimulation, under the supervision of often underpaid and undertrained caregivers is not beneficial. Besides, only 48% of the children attend them, and only for a few hours a day.​​ Formal learning settings: 

  1. Are overcrowded

  2. Exhibit poor sanitation

  3. Often employ scarce stimulation

  4. Staffed by underpaid and undertrained caregivers

  5. Attended only at 48% and for only 3 to 4 hours a day


Unfortunately, the Non-formal initiatives that could fill the gaps left by formal ones, and provide services closer and better adapted to each community, are not funded, monitored or evaluated. These settings were: 

  1. Understudied,

  2. Resource-limited

  3. Established in poor built environments.

The Informal settings (home environment, sleeping arrangements, streets and common spaces) often have a negative influence on encamped young children’s lifelong learning. The four main problems with these settings are: 

  1. Overcrowding in the home and settlement

  2. Poor sleeping arrangements

  3. Vulnerability in common spaces

  4. Lack of play areas for young kids

Currently, young children are negatively affected by the built environment of these refugee camps. If ECD initiatives underestimate cultural and contextual differences and overlook the effects of being encamped on young children's learning it will fail to improve their long-life learning.  ECD initiatives can and should consider the whole built environment as a learning source and take into account the perceptions of parents, caregivers and children to positively affect young children lifelong learning.

Formal learning

formal learning environments

The NGO-managed formal learning settings in the camps, called Early Childhood Development Centres or Preprimary schools, are highly influenced by international standards, national regulations (where they exist), and the education NGOs operating in camps.


The construction of these formal learning settings tends to lack involvement from architects, planners, parents, caregivers and children in the decision-making, the site selection, and the design, often resulting in long-term consequences. Refugees often do become involved eventually, typically by participating in the organization of parents' and teachers' associations, and in some cases if they are employed as teachers or headmasters. However, during the set-up phase and in terms of the design and construction of learning spaces , refugees and architects have virtually no say.


The designs for these centres are mostly developed off-site using predefined standards, and only in rare cases are refugees employed in their construction. Camp managers select the site for the formal learning facility based on often outdated or incomplete numerical data lacking urban planners or properly detailed maps of the camps. 

Nakivale formal ECD centres, Uganda

Formal ECD centres in Nakivale refugee camp, Uganda

The child-rearing practices in camps vary, as do their demographic composition. There are often subgroups of refugees that arrived at different times, speak different languages and have different cultures, all within the same camp. The pupils attending the ECD and their family’s needs often vary wildly. While all organizations operating in the education space in camps technically fall under the Education Cluster mandate, their strategies and modus operandi vary, affecting the quality of formal ECD delivery.

Mugombwa ECD centre, Rwanda

Formal ECD centre in Mugombwa refugee camp, Rwanda

Attendance an the ECD centre can be as low as 35% in some camps. In the interviews carried on during fieldwork, members of the NGOs in charge of education often claimed that low attendance is due to cultural barriers and/or parents' behaviour, which is only partially true.


There are also spatial issues that impact child attendance to the ECD centres. Keeping walking distances short and pathways easy to access is required to ensure high attendance at an ECD centre. Further, aesthetics and quality of construction materials and structures are relevant for children's attendance and stimulation, even though those elements are often overlooked by the NGO in charge.  The safeness and security of the compound, the access to water, toilets, food and play materials can either attract or dissuade young children from attending and are often not considered during planning and construction, and .

Amongst the camps studied, the situation in the large camps of  Nakivale, a 110.000 inhabitant camp in southwestern Uganda, and the 200,000 inhabitants camp of Kakuma is difficult. In these camps, long walking distances to ECD centres (often up to 6 kilometers), road hazards including motorbikes and 4x4s traveling at high speeds, uneven terrains and the presence of risky behaviours by adults affected by high unemployment and alcoholism, make the trip to the ECD a dangerous one. In these camps, the formal ECD centres might house 200 children in a 48 square meter room, often with only one caregiver or two at best. The ECD centres frequently lack proper toilets, furniture and didactic learning materials, and some of the structures are in a dilapidated state after only a few years of use.

Formal ECD centres in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya

Most parents, community mobilizers, and teachers cite the following as their principle barriers to ECD centre use:

  • Dangerous roads

  • Long traveling distances

  • Lack of proper toilet facilities, which can cause childhood accidents or abuse

  • Lack of access to water and food

  • Overcrowded classrooms


Refugees in camps in Rwanda cite the lack of food and toilets, the overcrowding and the unstable and insecure constructions as obstacles to young children's learning. Refugees in the Ugandan camps and in Kakuma agree with those last two issues as well. The chief cause of concern cited by parents in the camps in Uganda is the lack of proper well-paid teachers in ECD centres.

Children stated that they loved attending school, but many mentioned the lack of proper pavement, play equipment, colourful charts, shade in the outdoor areas, clean, child-friendly toilets and sugar in their porridge as their main concerns.

non-formal learning

NON-formal learning environments

Refugees are not a homogeneous group. The top-down instituted ECD initiatives often do not meet the refugee’s needs not only due to their scarcity, but also due their standardisation and universalised methods of teaching.  

Refugees sometimes in conjunction with their direct local hosts have always organised their own ECD initiatives, and still does despite the presence of formal ECDs in some places. Instances where the communities are organizing their own ECD initiatives are classified here as non-formal learning settings. Community groups, mother leaders, churches and madrassas, sometimes in liaison with smaller and local NGOs, create spaces and mobilize human resources towards young children's learning.


These activities and their spatial arrangements, despite being limited in material means, tend to better serve the community’s child rearing culture by strengthening ties between the encamped population and their surrounding communities.


The spatial and organizational variability of these non-formal initiatives is affected by the demographic variability, the material means and the organization of the community. To a greater degree than the standardized formal ECD  centres, they depend on local construction materials, geographic and climatic conditions, urban arrangements and the community’s resources.  Rwanda’s lack of space, Uganda’s and Kenya’s long walking distances within the camp, variability of cultures, languages and demographics present regional spatial constraints.


All research subjects studied agreed that these non-formal ECDs improve the overall learning in camps due to their composition of smaller groups that are located closer to the communities and the children, and where caregivers speak the same languages as the children and understand their cultural background. The likelihood of getting lost or suffering an accident on the way to the ECD is greatly reduced, the individual attention to each child increases, more vulnerable children have access to them, and they strengthen community ties and individual refugee agency.

Non-formal ECD initiatives in Kyaka II refugee camp, Uganda

Despite these benefits, the adult respondents studied complained about the insufficient access to material resources, especially the lack of child friendly toilets, play equipment, access to water, furniture, fencing and food, protection from sun and rain and protection from external threats.

Children appreciate the closeness to home and the fact that they understand the languages spoken, but miss play materials, food and protection from sun and rain.

Non-formal ECD initiatives (home-based ECD) Kigeme refugee camp, Rwanda

For example, in Rwanda, both Kigeme (population 15,000) and Mugobwa (population 8,000) have what they call “Home-Based ECD” initiatives. Sixty of these mother-led initiatives currently exist in each camp, with each of them providing for approximately 15 children. These initiatives use spaces between homes to develop their activities. CARE International supports the mother groups by providing play materials, mats, and sorghum to cook in their kitchens to feed the children daily.


The spaces in Kigeme are far from ideal, when Mugobwa was built at the end of 2013, CARE International advocated for the enlargement of the interstitial spaces between homes to host these Home-Based ECDs. In both camps these initiatives are located closer to small, vulnerable children and provide mothers with more control, but their closeness to roads, lack of protection from the sun and rain, and lack of defined boundaries do not provide ideal circumstances for concentration, play and rest.

Kiziba started its own non-formal ECD initiatives in 2014. These initiatives exhibit similar traits to Kigeme’s and Mugobwa’s but are organized top-down by a foreign Christian NGO called Global Help to Heal, with particular curricula. The majority of Kiziba’s ten initiatives take place inside of community-built churches. These vernacular constructions tend to be dark and lack appropriate furniture, storage, toilets, spaces to play and equipment.

Non-formal ECD initiatives in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya

Of the camps studied, Kakuma is the best funded, the most top-down controlled and securitised, but simultaneously the most insecure due to internal clashes and confrontations with neighbours.  For these reasons, non-formal education initiatives are typically managed from the top down, either by NGOs or by mosques and churches. International NGOs have initiated two major templates for ECD centres: the Furaha centres and the Waldorf initiatives. The two Furaha centres in Kakuma 3 and 4 are a joint effort by UNHCR, UNICEF and NGOs managing education and child protection. They are open to all ages after school and are a combination of playground and referral centres. They include counseling rooms, a well-equipped playground, toilets and secure fencing. Waldorf Kakuma initiatives take place at the protection and reception centres in Kakuma 3 and 4. The lack of resources pushed this organization to close two of their operations in Kakuma in the past several years. Waldorf is based on the Western-initiated pedagogy that uses art as means of learning and expression. Children come to the spaces for a few hours to plant, paint, make clay models, and do other manual activities.

In Uganda, the situation is quite different due to the loosely applied top-down intervention. The majority of ECD centres are community-initiated. Some ECD centres are developed in churches such as in Kiziba, while others are attached to primary schools.  Others are in specifically-designed compounds lead by youth groups such as Coburwas, community organizations such as P14, and private initiatives by Ugandan neighbours. In a few cases, ECD centres are very well-built and creatively designed, an excellent example of a stimulating ECD space. These examples generally exist when a teacher or a headmaster is trained in Western progressive education pedagogies such as Montessory, Steiner, Waldorf or Reggio-Emilia, all of which include space as an important factor in early childhood development. 

Informal learning

informal learning environments

The most overlooked but most influential spaces on young children's learning are the homes, the streets and common spaces. These spaces are classified here as informal learning settings.


Despite their lack of organized directed learning, these environments and the activities developed in them affect young children's brain development as well as their emotional, social and physical development. Children spend most of their time in these informal learning spaces. At their homes sleeping, eating, learning cultural and family habits, on the streets playing, fetching water or firewood, and wandering about.


These environments affect children's attention span, energy levels and socio-emotional relationships. In many cases, the influence of these spaces and not solely parental stubbornness are what is preventing children from attending formal or non-formal ECD centres.


Housing, streets and common spaces are affected by humanitarian planning, or lack thereof. The oldest camps of Kenya and Rwanda, Kakuma phase I and Kiziba, and all of the Ugandan camps studied here, lack humanitarian planning and are more “informal” and organic, incorporating cultural settlement patterns to adapt to new geographies and climates. In southwest Uganda, each refugee family is given a piece of land to cultivate and build a home, with only the constraint of material resources, but free of cultural or spatial impositions. In Kakuma phase I, refugees self-settled, but in newer iterations of the camp a grid-like planning scheme was constructred with wide, dusty and sunny roads measuring 6x10 meters, and compounds measuring 3x4 meters squared with temporary shelters were built. 


Home interiors


Activities in and around the homes

Anchor 1

congolese homes in Rwandan camps

Daily activities and sleeping arrangements. Diagram of Congolese homes in the Rwandan camps. 

south sudanese homes in Southwest Ugandan camps

Daily activities and sleeping arrangements. Diagram of South Sudanese homes in the Ugandan camps. 

somali homes in northwest kenyan camps

Daily activities and sleeping arrangements. Diagram of Somali homes in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. 

Anchor 2

streets and common areas

Young children games around the streets of the camps studied

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