08 December 2014

Riding a reindeer to school

Ulzichimeg is catching up on homework in her 
dormitory ©UNICEF/2014/Zetty Brake

Ulzichimeg is a small girl with hair so long that looks like it has never been cut. When school started on September 1st, Ulzichimeg joined her two older sisters at the local soum school a full day’s travel away from her family by reindeer.

The six year old lives with her mother Bolormaa, father Naranjargal, older sisters Ulzisaikhan, 13, and Ulzisetseg, 12 and younger brother Tushinbyar 2 in a teepee (a traditional mobile house) in Khuvsgul Province, northern Mongolia. During the school year she lives in a dormitory with her two other sisters and other students.

“I like school because you learn many things,” she says. “At school I have friends and there are toys. I also like being close to my sisters. They help me with my homework and take good care of me”.

Ulzichimeg is one of the Tsaatan people, otherwise known as the reindeer people. The Tsaatan people are nomadic and herd reindeers, moving when the seasons change to meet the needs of the reindeers. 

Given that they are nomadic ensuring education for their children is hard. When children reach school age they go to the local soum school and board at the dormitory during the school year. The school can be at least a day’s travel away and because there are no roads, people have to travel by horse or reindeer.

Providing early childhood education opportunities for the community is a challenge. Instead of a traditional kindergarten where students come Monday to Friday, the district runs an intensive 21 day kindergarten school during summer for the children of the Tsaatan people. The school, housed in two teepees (traditional housing for the Tsaatans), educates up to 25 students aged two to six each summer. The parents bring their children to the kindergarten on reindeers.

For the last two summers Ulzichimeg attended the intensive kindergarten. “I really liked kindergarten,” she says. “My favorite thing was washing my hands. Drawing was also nice”.
Bujmaa was Ulzichimeg’s kindergarten teacher last year. Now she is teaching second grade at the school that Ulzichimeg is attending and regularly checks in on her.

“Ulzichimeg was a good student,” she recalls. “She was very good at memorizing things like songs and poems. She has a lot of energy and can be a little bit naughty”.

“Kindergarten helped her prepare her for school. When students come they have never sat on a chair or at a table before. They learn to do that for the first time at kindergarten. They have also never held a pen or pencil before, so they have to learn that as well. We teach them to sing songs and learn poems that are new to them.

“The families live on their own, so during the year they do not see children outside of their siblings,” she says. “Kindergarten provides them with a great opportunity to socialize and get use to things like sharing and playing with others.”

“Because she had been to kindergarten, when Ulzichimeg went to school, she knew what it would be like. She knew how to sit at a desk in class and that she would be staying in the dorm with her sisters. She is doing really well.”

Moving on from kindergarten

Bujmaa helps Ulzichimeg with her studies 
©UNICEF/2014/Zetty Brake

Attending kindergarten helped Ulzichimeg’s transition to school go smoothly. She was prepared to learn and was able to adapt to her new learning and living environment.
Tsendmaa, the kindergarten director for the soum says that they put a lot of effort into making the transition to school easy for the children.

“When children graduate from kindergarten to school, the teachers will take them to the school and in a way, hand them over to their new teachers,” she says. “This helps them move smoothly into primary school”.

Both Tsendmaa and Bujmaa agreed that grade one teachers preferred having children who had been to kindergarten in their classes.

“Teachers want to take children who went to kindergarten because it is easier,” Bujmaa explains. “They know who went to kindergarten and sometimes fight to have those students in their class. Adapting to school is very hard for children who didn’t go to kindergarten”.

Providing opportunities to all

For the Tsaatan people the summer kindergarten is the only opportunity for their children to receive early childhood education. While the families know the benefits of kindergarten it is impossible for them to access regular services.

Many other Mongolian children also miss out on early childhood education. Only 68 per cent of kindergarten aged children are enrolled in early childhood education. UNICEF Mongolia’s Early Childhood Development Officer Tsendsuren Tumee explains, “In Mongolia there are more families wanting to send their children to kindergarten then there are places for them. Because of this many children miss out on the incredible benefits that early childhood education brings”.

“UNICEF is helping children reach their full potential by increasing access to quality early childhood education,” Tsendsuren explains. “We also want to make sure we are reaching the children who are hardest to reach. For the Tsaatan people UNICEF supported the establishment of the summer kindergarten. We provided the teepees, furniture, toys, water filters and other materials.”

Tsendsuren explained that other costs, such as the salary for teachers and staff and running costs were covered by the local education department. And that parents were providing wood for heating and cooking and reindeer milk for the students.

“The kindergarten is helping 25 children with their cognitive and social-emotional development,” Tsendsuren says. “It is also helping 25 children prepare for school, who would otherwise miss out on this vital opportunity. But we need to make sure all children have the opportunity to access kindergartens”.

Ulzichimeg and her kindergarten are in the documentary “The Taiga path that leads to mobile kindergarten”.


Zetty Brake is the Communications and External Relations Officer at UNICEF in Mongolia