Community Preschool Teacher Training Among the Penan in Malaysia

By Veronica Anne Retnam
Research and Development Officer
Asian Institute for Early Child Care and Education (AIECCE)

In an isolated Penan village in the Middle Baram region of the Miri Administrative Division of Sarawak, the largest state in Malaysia, the community is preparing for a graduation ceremony concert for the children who are now ready to enter primary school. The children’s teacher, 22-year-old Amelia, has been working hard with her entire community to prepare a performance in which the enthusiastic children will role play the story of their lives. The children have been attending a preschool that was established through a community-based effort.

The traditionally nomadic indigenous Penan peoples are one of the most marginalized communities in Malaysia. They remain dependent on diminishing forests for their livelihood and culture. Sarawak Access, an NGO working with the Penan communities, notes that many Penan children drop out of primary school because the required adaptation from Penan society to formal school society is so difficult. The mainstream education system does not cater to the community’s sociocultural and economic needs.

In these remote villages, basic facilities are absent and primary school attendance is dependent upon logging company vehicles transporting children to and from the boarding schools hours away from the villages. A journey through the forest to the nearest school would take a whole day and a night. For Amelia and her friends, primary schooling consisted of barely one disjointed year and a half over the course of six years.

At age 19, Amelia became one of the pioneering preschool teachers in the Penan community, after a brief exposure in a preschool in Kuching (the state capital of Sarawak). Getting parents to send their children to the village preschool was an immediate goal, as parents were accustomed to bringing the young children into the forest with them to look for food and learn the traditional knowledge and skills of forest-living. Commercial logging by the Sarawak government has depleted food and handicraft material sources traditionally available to the Penan people; the community has been forced to go further away from the village—beyond safe territories. After about three years of encouraging parents to send their children to the preschool, attendance was more regular and Amelia’s efforts were making a difference. The children were gaining some basic literacy and numeracy knowledge in Malay, the medium of instruction for the formal curriculum that has been so alien to the Penan children.

For Amelia and her community, taking charge of the daily functioning of the school (as compared to the normal top-down approach of outsiders providing programs to passive receivers) has been a major socio-cultural shift. It was time to expand the focus to include raising the teachers’ and communities’ capacities through some formal training for Amelia and two other young people: 21-year-old Ryner, who is Amelia’s assistant, and 21-year-old Wanna, who was going to be starting a preschool in her own village.

The Asian Institute for Early Child Care and Education was tasked with training the teachers to support a holistic preschool program. After initial fact finding regarding the resources and needs of the community, several training sessions were planned and conducted. Using play methodology, the teachers learned to engage with children using the local environment (forest and river) and resources such as stones, leaves, cardboard boxes, and plastic bottles. This met the dual objectives of recycling and collecting teacher-created learning materials.

The training rotated between the two villages. Although both are in Middle Baram and relatively near one another, travel is a challenge. The traditional mode of travel by long boat, going over fast-flowing waters and rapids, is becoming a practice of the past. Logging has negatively affected the waterways, through build-up of silt and debris. In addition, wood for making the boats is scarce. The journey into the interior is made via four-wheel drive vehicle, taking about six hours to traverse a distance of about 200 kilometers on logging roads as log-laden trucks pass. After a rain, traveling between the two villages is not possible—as the trainers found out. Water levels rise and become turbulent, making it risky for the inexperienced to attempt crossing.

The team has to bring in all stationery and food supplies. Because of these expenses, the training was limited to only two sessions in 2014 and 2015. Given their limited exposure to a curriculum far removed from the world of the forest, the river, and their elders’ wealth of knowledge, Amelia, Wanna, and Ryner learned in small steps during their preschool teacher training, in much the same way as the children learn. Flash cards, puzzles, and stories were prepared, using Penan (their mother tongue), Malay, and English, making connections with the familiar aspects of their environment. For early numbers and early science, experience-based learning incorporated stones, sticks, and leaves. The teachers engaged with the community and the children to use the forest as their classroom from time to time. Thus, the children have ventured into the forest with their teachers and parents to learn from the environment.

Another training session used sports as a means of engaging with the community. This was scheduled for the November training in Wanna’s village. Wanna and her friends identified five different events. Some of these events involved eye-hand coordination, essential for pre-writing skills. The children had fun running up and down, balancing balls and squeezing water into a bottle—developing gross and fine motor skills as well as socio-emotional skills.

With some extra funds available, an additional training session was possible in 2015. A lesson plan using an integrated thematic approach was introduced. The teachers used one theme to create learning materials for six learning areas. What was learned in earlier sessions was repeated over the four days. Using the simple teaching aids, the teachers worked with children in the six learning areas. For physical development, the teachers used storytelling about hygienic practices, such as staying away from rain and keeping the school environment clean. They had acquired sufficient skills to add on to material they had prepared during the training. The initial stage seems to indicate that they understood a “context-sensitive process-based curriculum.” They were working with the children to learn in small steps, using available local resources and incorporating early childhood learning principles. A final session for the year was a two-week exposure to community preschools in Peninsular Malaysia.


The training of the Penan teachers is more than simply following the National Preschool Curriculum Standards. It is also about empowering them and their communities to take charge, and be able to manage other aspects of community life that are generally beyond preschool teachers’ limited roles and responsibilities. The Penan are a people trying to make sense of the world outside, so alien to the peace and harmony they have enjoyed for generations. Having been forced to cease their nomadic traditions, they face a world of loggers and a government that fails to provide crucial support to the Penans. In this context, Amelia, Wanna, Ryner, and whoever else joins them, face an uphill task of preparing young children for the transition to school.

The challenge they have taken on in bringing preschool education to their communities using local resources will ultimately also include advocating for an inclusive curriculum. When Penan children see the picture of the atip (a stick ending in 3 points used to pick up food) among kitchen items in their school curriculum, it will be a tiny victory for the community. Until then, these community preschool educators persevere.