The early years of a child are crucial in developing an adaptable and agile mind. A child’s experiences in the preschool years have lasting effects on the foundation of the child’s behaviour, emotions and education in the future. Despite research on the critical importance of Early Childhood Development (ECD), there continues to be a lack of awareness. In particular, ECD implementation in Pakistan’s most remote and rural areas is imperative.

Mawlana Hazar Imam emphasized the importance of ECD in his speech during the 25th anniversary of the Madrasa Programme in Kenya in 2007, “We sometimes give too little attention to the schools which prepare young children for life itself - in all of its holistic dimensions. And yet the evidence accumulates steadily showing that an investment made in the earliest preschool years can bring enormous dividends as a child proceeds from one level of education to another.”

Parwaaz, an Early Childhood Development programme, is offered by Pakistan’s Aga Khan Education Board (AKEB) to parents, grandparents and/or caregivers of children aged six months to three years. As part of this programme, children and parents are engaged in activity-based sessions to improve the child’s physical, social, psychological and cognitive aspects.

Hailing from Shoghore (in Chitral District), Anita Sher speaks about the significant change she observed in her older daughter Aliza who attended Parwaaz class. “Before Parwaaz, Aliza was rigid. I would run after her to make her do things. After Parwaaz, my daughter has become friendly. She now obeys the elders of the family and me. She also shares her learning with her grandparents. She recites dua and washes her hands before eating.”

In the sessions conducted by volunteer ECD facilitators trained by ECD experts, parents can ask questions regarding their child’s developmental stages and growth. Khalida Perveen, a TKN volunteer and Parwaaz Coordinator in the remote valley of Chitral, states, “The Parwaaz programme aims at disseminating awareness and knowledge of ECD in Chitral. It adopts a participatory approach by engaging parents and their children in activities catering to a child’s developmental stages. The purpose is to reach the communities of Chitral that are often inaccessible and lack quality education to guide parents in their child’s physical, psychological and social status and ensure their overall wellbeing.”

Equipping children in their early years with emotional and social skills and physical health is a pivotal foundation for lifelong learning. The role of parents in this endeavour is crucial and a prerequisite. As emphasised by Arfaa Sabah, another Parwaaz TKN volunteer, “The reason Parwaaz includes both parent and child is that in these classes, parents are trained to facilitate the education of their child because the child feels more comfortable and ready with their parents’ engagement.” Arfaa also played a key role in the Parwaaz ECD Camp conducted in Broghil, Chitral. The camp used the programme’s curriculum and delivered critical information through activity-based sessions. To date, the Parwaaz ECD programme has educated a large number of parents in Chitral.

The lack of internet facilities in these areas was a significant barrier to Parwaaz’s continuation during the COVID-19 pandemic so the programme reluctantly had to come to a halt because classes could not be conducted using online platforms. Khalida Perveen recalls an instance when a parent, during the pandemic, asked her about the Parwaaz programme, “Parents are so interested. They learnt a lot and want to continue to engage with Parwaaz; they eagerly waited for the programme to resume.”

Soon after the pandemic subsided, the Parwaaz programme was revived in 2021, with in-person sessions held in the south and some parts of the north. Sharing her experience after the pandemic, Bibi Khosh, a parent from Susum, Chitral, was delighted to see the sessions in her village. She praised the volunteers for delivering such an impactful programme and said,  “My three-year-old son Shahzaib learned a lot from the classes. To me, one of the best changes in him is that he now puts his things back where he would pick them. Like toys, he plays with his toys and puts them back just as he learns to put things back in the class.”

Arfaa Sabah says, “We are willing to serve for months in these remote areas, voluntarily, because we want to bring positive change in these communities by facilitating parents with their child’s development and growth through Parwaaz.” Dedicating their time and knowledge, these outstanding TKN volunteers continue to serve the Chitral community in helping to fulfill Mawlana Hazar Imam’s vision of lifelong learning and improving the Jamat’s quality of life.

TKN volunteers also have made a significant contribution to the success of the Parwaaz programme in several other countries.