Step by Step... Looking for the Little Prince
By Camelia Teodosiu
Alexandra is a young single mother, a frail woman, whose beauty hides behind her somewhat tired eyes. I met Alexandra during my visit to a nursery school which offers a Step by Step program – an educational alternative that is adapted to children between the ages of 0 and 3. She was on her lunch break, and she had come to spend some time with her daughter, Maria, who was overjoyed. Maria showed her new drawings to her mother, asked her to sit down on one of the chairs, a sponge-stuffed cube, resembling a die, so that they could build a Lego house together.
The children had finished their lunch, and they were preparing for their afternoon nap. In a matter of minutes beds that had resembled lockers were pulled down for the children; the sheets were nicely colored, and matched the curtains, the wall-to-wall carpeting, and even the animated scenes painted on the walls. We tiptoed out of the room, lest we wake the children, and went to the parents’ room to talk. Alexandra told me her story. About 18 months before, she was really desperate, and didn’t know what to do or where to go. Her husband, with whom she was not officially married, left her for another woman who promised to get him a job. At that time she and her husband owed quite a bit of money for the upkeep of the apartment they lived in, and he later failed to pay any alimony. The little money she had was not even enough to feed her baby properly. She breastfed her baby daughter for about seven months, but then she was forced to wean her, as she didn’t have enough milk. She could no longer go without a job as she was in great need of money. But there was no one to leave Maria with while she was working; she could never afford the luxury of getting a baby-sitter. And so she started asking around about a nursery school with good and caring staff. That was all she wanted... She knew many nursery schools had been forced to close down because of financial problems, and kindergartens would not bother to take on very young children, under the age of one. However, she did not give up asking around, until she discovered that the kindergarten in her neighbourhood, a large building resembling a school, had actually expanded its activities, and would accept children under three. She took Maria for a short visit, to see what their chances were.
“I remember that Maria smiled as soon as we entered the nursery school, looking around in wonder at the bunnies, flowers, landscapes and various fairy tale characters wearing nicely colored clothes painted on the walls,” recalls Alexandra. “The headmistress, a energetic woman, all heart, received us as if she expected us. She showed us around, pointing out the conditions they offered, and explained that all the children were very well looked after. She assured me that they were carefully supervised, and were involved in activities that were meant to develop their imagination and personality. It struck me that she might be under the impression that I was an inspector or something, and then I thought that I must have entered a private nursery school. Everything seemed too good to be… available to a person like myself, with very limited means.”
By this point in our conversation the children were getting up from their nap. As they waited for their afternoon snacks they each went to their favorite play area.
Maria was already a “veteran” in the nursery school, having been practically raised here. She knew the place and all the routines as if she were at home. She knew when and how the menu changed, and understood that she could request to be served a particular dish she liked on the next day. She was also allowed to go over to the baby group, of which she had been a part when she first came to the nursery. Another thing she was aware of was that she would be going to the junior group in kindergarten the following year, hosted in another wing of the building that she had visited several times with her teachers.
While I was talking to Alexandra the Headmistress came up to us, and cheerfully explained that she had managed to make all the arrangements for the installation of an independent heating unit in the building: “It will certainly reduce our heating costs in winter,” she told us.
I was impressed by everything I saw: the furniture that had been specially designed, built and arranged, the materials used for play, but also to help develop imagination and creativity, as well the patience the staff demonstrated towards the children. Some children were playing on a small plastic slide, with protected edges, set up right in the middle of the room, others were going in and out of a small house where they could entertain two or three guests at a time, as the house was too small to accommodate more; still other children were colouring or painting, paint smeared on their hands, faces or the tip of their noses, while the remainder were rolling around on the floor, playing with some big sponge-stuffed, yellow and red cylinders. None of the objects had sharp corners or edges that could hurt the children.
The teachers informed me that the program had made them feel more motivated, more willing to develop new projects together with the children and their parents. “Step by Step,” said one of the teachers, “is an alternative for early education, which offers children a harmonious, caring and nurturing environment, contributing to the balanced development of their personality. Even at very young ages, children learn social skills, how to express their preferences, get to know what their rights are; parents also become fully aware how absolutely essential the first three years of life are for the subsequent development of any individual.”
“We realize that parents need us as much as the children,” said one of the teachers. “At the parent counseling center we provide direct assistance relating to any psychological issue arising in the parent-child relationship.”
I would not be exaggerating if I said that my assessment of the “Step by Step” educational alternative would be full of superlatives. Their care and concern for the children, their educational methods, the way they involve parents and the community, the way in which they manage to attract financing partners and sponsors... all these seem truly exemplary to me. Of course I asked for more details about the program, which I feel should be made available to all children, and implicitly to their parents. I was informed that the program had been implemented by the “Step by Step” Center for Education and Professional Development (CEDP), a non-governmental organization, supported by UNICEF. It is obvious that UNICEF, the most renowned international symbol for the promotion of the child rights, had to be somehow involved in such an initiative.
Teachers are particularly appreciative of this new methodology, approved and implemented by the Ministry of Education and Research, and many of them have expressed their willingness to participate in the program, which has since expanded to include several counties.
The “Step by Step” CEDP and UNICEF are partners in this vast early education project, supplying initial and continuous training, logistical and financial support for teachers, and exchanges between these.
It is interesting to note that while everyone is aware of the importance of education, particularly of early education, for the development and future of children, there are too few people who show their willingness or commitment to become involved. But all it takes is a moment to recall how much you would have appreciated more attention from the grown-ups when you were a child... Just think back to the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book, The Little Prince, which ends with a drawing and the following phrases..:
“This is, to me, the loveliest and saddest landscape in the world. (...) It is here that the little prince appeared on Earth, and disappeared. (...)
Then, if a little man appears who laughs, who has golden hair and who refuses to answer questions, you will know who he is. If this should happen, please comfort me. Send me word that he has come back.”