October 16, 2017

Recipe for success: Gaza preschools combine healthy eating and learning

Students make fruit salad and learn using their senses

Photo credit: ANERA

Elaine Hunter

Early childhood development writer

On World Food Day, we find out how Palestinian children are being taught skills while enjoying themselves in the kitchen.

Creative preschool educators in the State of Palestine are not letting the lack of resources hinder their young children’s learning potential - they're turning kitchens into learning labs. 

With World Food Day being marked today, we shine the spotlight on some of the innovative work being done by ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid) - a charity set up to help Palestinian refugees.

Sulieman Mleahat - ANERA's Education Programme Director - welcomed the chance to talk about what the organisation is doing in terms of targeting nutrition in its early childhood development programmes.

ANERA addresses the development and humanitarian needs of Palestinians and other marginalised communities in Palestine and Lebanon. The charity helps local institutions become more self-sufficient and effective in serving their communities. 

Children are taking part in making healthy meals as part of an active learning initiative

Photo credit: ANERA

Sulieman said: “Our training includes a focus on child health and nutrition. 

“Teachers are provided with up-to-date knowledge and information on strategies to enhance child health and nutrition in difficult environments such as Gaza. Such strategies are shared with children and parents alike.

"Healthy eating habits - like the consumption of iron-rich dates and green vegetables, as well as the avoidance of tea drinking after meals - helps teachers and parents to mitigate against iron-deficiency anaemia, which affects more than one in two children under the age of five in Gaza."

It is well documented that a child’s brain is 90% developed by the time they are five years old – and getting access to the right kind of food is as important as proper stimulation, care, love and protection.

Theirworld’s 5#5 campaign raises awareness of how important it is to support children in those crucial first years of life.

In Gaza’s deprived and poorest communities, schools rarely have libraries and science labs. But that’s not going to stop the country’s teachers from giving their young pupils the information and education they need.

The children of Gaza’s YMCA preschool have had their kitchen turned into a science lab. Through fun activities, the children are learning all about weight, volume, colour, relationships between objects and how substances can be transformed.

“Today we’re making fruit salad,” said teacher Ghada Hashwa, who recently joined ANERA’s teacher training workshop. “Children are taking part in making healthy meals as part of an active learning initiative.”

Fun activities involving food are teaching children about healthy eating

Photo credit: ANERA

Ghada is one of 48 teachers from nine preschools enrolled in the active learning programme. The new method of teaching breaks the rigid routine of conventional learning.

ANERA - with funding from Dubai Cares - trained the teachers on basic child rights and protection, and distributed reading bags and other educational resources. School renovations include new furniture to create child-friendly spaces that are the right environment for learning.

An example of how the programmes are using food and nutrition comes from one of classes at the YMCA, which uses making fruit salad to teach about essential nutrition and healthy eating.

The teachers turn this kind of learning into an interactive game to engage the children for longer.

In the kitchen, the students use all of their senses to learn. They won't forget what they did because it will be carved into their minds.

Teacher Najla El Jadba

An ANERA spokesman said: “The first part of the session required students to identify different 'mystery' fruits by reaching into a bag. Then they named the fruits and learned how to change their form - by making juice, or chopping them up into slices. 

“Teacher Ghada ensures the safety of tools used for experimenting, as well as food cleanliness."

Through active learning projects, children learn life skills through practice, experimentation, trial and error.

“Traditional education does not allow any of this,” said Ghada. “Children are passive learners and receivers in the conventional classroom.” 

When children participate in preparing food, they develop skills like language, science, mathematics and art. Learning is enriched with the vibrant colours of fruit and the healthy content of their meals.

Learning is enriched with the vibrant colours of fruit and vegetables

Photo credit: ANERA

“In the kitchen, the students use all of their senses to learn,” said another teacher, Najla El Jadba. “They won't forget what they did because it will be carved into their minds.”

Before ANERA rehabilitated the preschool, it was a grey and gloomy space. Now kids are inspired to learn and explore in their classrooms and playground, which are painted in vibrant colours.

“The old playground was unsafe, with old, decaying tiles for floors,” said preschool director Mona Tarazi. “The unshaded play area was a struggle during winter and summer. The toilets leaked sewage.” 

Mona smiles as she describes the changes. 

“We need to offer children in Gaza a healthy beginning from a young age. How lovely to set them up for a brighter, healthy future.”

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