A Good Story from a Great Kindergarten
Positive practices in the kindergarten "Čika Jova Zmaj" in Foča influenced parents, the local community, and the authorities to recognize the importance of early childhood development and preschool education
His friends sang the birthday song, and little Lazar blew out the candle with the number five on the colorful birthday cake made of cardboard, and then the real party began. Children make fruit skewers out of the fruit they cut themselves. Everyone makes it from the fruit they like the most, so the skewers contained cubes of watermelon, fragrant melon, apple, and other fruit, which the children ate with delight.
The usual birthday celebration is underway at the kindergarten "Čika Jova Zmaj" in Foča, and it all started many years ago when this kindergarten joined the UNICEF project Nutrition Friendly Schools and Kindergartens during which they introduced a number of healthy and nutritious foods into the children's diet, and birthdays where cakes and snacks were eaten were replaced by fruit birthdays.
For this practice, the kindergarten received an award for the promotion of healthy lifestyles at the competition "Our stories for the best kindergartens" back in 2016, and the director Slađana Vladičić emphasizes the importance of cooperation with UNICEF on numerous projects over the past 10 years:
"In 2013, we joined UNICEF's big project Increasing Early Learning Opportunities for Children in BiH. Through that project, I became more familiar with the work of the Center for Early Childhood Growth and Development, which was attached to the Čika Jova Zmaj kindergarten that year and which still functions as a resource room in the new building," she recalls, adding that numerous other projects followed, including a project related to nutrition:
"Unlike projects that have a beginning and an end, this is an initiative that has come to life and will continue to live. Last year, for the second time, we received the award Nutrition Friendly Kindergarten awarded by UNICEF, the Institute of Public Health of the RS and the Ministry of Education and Culture of the RS", says Slađana adding that through this initiative, awareness of proper nutrition has been developed, both among employees, and among children and parents:
"There were some prejudices at first, the parents had some objections, but we always solved everything through conversation and giving enough information. The children have accepted a healthy diet, and they eat everything that is prepared".
In addition to preparing and eating healthy food, the children from this kindergarten grow their own vegetables in a small garden, which they plant, nurture, and weed around. So, the middle group went out to clean the weeds before the rain:
"We have lettuce, onions, broccoli and tomatoes. "Vegetables need water and sun," explains Isidora as she works in the garden with her friends, and Aljoša and his friends show us the lemons they have grown. It is still green, and they hope it will ripen and turn yellow.
On the other hand, the "Dragon Scouts" from the oldest group of preschoolers are practicing setting up tents, which they set up very quickly in two groups, demonstrating the knowledge and skills they have acquired during the trips they often go on.
"We are scouts!" Tanja, Dragan, and the rest of the group proudly tell us, recounting in one voice how on their last trip they hunted for treasure, built tents, and rode horses.
"Being in nature is very important for children, and everything they do through "Green Scouts" is very important for their age, because there they encounter various tasks, through which they develop graphomotor skills and fine motor skills," says the teacher Zorica Kostović, who has worked in kindergarten for six years. The practice was designed and started by the teacher Sanja Prodanović, for which she received the award for the best innovative practice in 2017, awarded by the organization "Step by Step" from Sarajevo:
"The basic idea was to return children to nature and nature to children, and all this through a carefully designed and detailed plan and programme that we follow. Children from the oldest group participate in the "Dragon Scouts", and after it became known about us, we received numerous inquiries from scout groups about how and in what way to involve children of that age", says Sanja Prodanović.
After working in the garden and washing their hands, children enjoy playing with games made using assistive technology and Boardmaker 7 software. One group of them took a board on which they learn about animals, another group learns about the senses, while the third one plays a color matching game, which combines learning and developing motor skills.
"The application is primarily intended for working with children with cognitive, sensory and communication difficulties, but the software is such that games, materials and worksheets can also be created in it for children with typical development, so it works great for us, especially when in a group we have a child with difficulties. And then we make games and materials with different levels of complexity, so that a completely inclusive atmosphere is created in which children work together, but with different levels of complexity and goals that they need to achieve and no one is singled out", explains Sanja, who, in addition to being trained in the use of assistive technologies, has also participated in the training of her colleagues, and is also the co-author of the manual.
She adds that in addition to printed material and games, with the help of Boardmaker 7, interactive tasks are created on the computer, which are especially interesting for children. The kindergarten has 10 of its own computers, and as part of the cooperation with UNICEF, they will soon receive three more laptops with a touch screen, which, she says, will particularly make it easier to work with children with disabilities.
In addition to group work, individual treatments are also performed for children with difficulties in the resource room within the Center for Early Childhood Growth and Development. A special advantage is that everything is located in the kindergarten and the children are fully integrated, so when, through observation and the application of scales, a certain difficulty is observed that requires individual treatment, the child comes to the resource room as part of the usual activities. Miloš Džoković, as a graduate educator, works with children in a group, but being also an educator and rehabilitator by profession, and if needed, he also does individual treatments with children.
"We work with children with developmental disabilities or children who need some form of intervention. The resource room has all the materials for screening, detection and treatments, a lot of didactic material and toys that we received and made, in short everything that can stimulate early childhood growth and development in the best possible way. We also do speech therapy treatments here," explains Miloš, adding that except for kindergarten children, treatments are also done for children who are not kindergarten users and who need the support that the resource room provides. In addition to children from Foča, free resource room services have also been provided to children from Goražde, Višegrad and other cities and towns, and children from Montenegro were also coming.
They highlight work with children with developmental disabilities as an area in which they cooperated a lot with UNICEF through numerous projects, many of which have been sustained:
"One of them, which particularly stands out, and which has remained viable, is a project in which EDUS from Sarajevo was also involved, and it is about child development behavioral scales, within the framework of which all of us in the institution went through numerous trainings that improved our work. When you have a child with a delay or developmental disabilities, the question is always how and what to do. You want to do everything in your power to help your child develop their abilities. To our satisfaction, the Ministry of Education and Culture recognized the importance of the EDUS scales, so that since last year they have become an official instrument that can be used by all preschool institutions in the RS", says director Slađana Vladičić, explaining that an individual plan is drawn up based on the scale for a child who is included in a regular group, and if it is considered necessary, individual treatments are done in the resource room as support to speed up the development of underdeveloped skills.
Positive practices in the "Čika Jova Zmaj" kindergarten influenced parents, the local community, and decision-makers to recognize the importance of early childhood development and preschool education, so they continued to implement everything they started doing in the old building in the new building they moved to in 2020.
"We organized several round tables, whenever we had the opportunity at important meetings, we always emphasized the significance of early childhood development and early education, and it is very important to develop awareness among responsible people and decision makers to recognize it and say "this is it". The municipality of Foča financed the construction of a completely new building, which is equipped according to the latest pedagogical norms and standards. The children of this town deserve such a building and the conditions in which they currently stay", says the director, adding that with their dedicated work, the number of children in the kindergarten has been increasing day by day:
"In September 2013, there were 36 children and 12 employees in our kindergarten, while today in the new building we have 264 children and 34 employees, and we still have a waiting list, which is a measurable indicator of how many good things we have done and how well parents have recognized it, who became aware of the need for their child to go to kindergarten and who put kindergarten attendance high on the list of their priorities".
Mother Ana, whose son Aljoša goes to "Čika Jova Zmaj", and whose older daughter, who is now in primary school, also went to the same kindergarten, concludes:
"I don't know what to say about the work of this kindergarten, except that it is perfection. What the teachers do is incredible, and I think that this kindergarten is certainly on par with the best European kindergartens. My daughter, who is now in primary school, went to kindergarten while it was still in the old building, but the work of the teachers was not different. With the new building, the quality was maintained, and the children got much better conditions for development and learning".