Early childhood centers give children a head-start

Early childhood education

Milica Radovanovic
Children at ECD center in Mitrovica
22 April 2022

The first years of childhood are critical for children's learning, mental health and social skills. Children who go to a quality pre-school are less likely to drop out or repeat grades at school and are more likely to achieve reading and math’s standards in primary school. These are some of the reasons why early childhood education is so important.

As per latest MICS survey data (2020),  in Kosovo, only about 15 per cent of children aged 3 to 4 years go to pre-school.[1] Children living in remote, rural areas are most likely to miss out on a pre-school education because of high costs, long distance to the nearest pre-school or a lack of awareness of the benefits of early learning.

Viktor and Matija 4 years of age, and Matija and Sara 3 years of age, all live in the village of Zerovnica in Zvecan municipality. They are lucky to attend a Community-based Early Childhood Development Centre in their own village. Had it not been there, they would have had no opportunity to attend an education program until they enroll in pre-primary school at the age of 6.

Recognizing the limited access to pre-schools around Kosovo, UNICEF has introduced Community-based Early Childhood Development Centers in several municipalities.

Over the past 10 years, UNICEF and its partners, have supported setting up centers as part of primary and pre-primary school campuses among other in rural, northern Kosovo. There are currently around 200 children regularly attending classes and activities in 10 centers (two in Zubin Potok, two in Zvecan, three in Vucitrn and three in Mitrovica South municipalities). About 2,000 children have accessed a pre-school through such Community-based Early Childhood Development Centers over the past decade period, contributing to an enhanced school readiness of children to transition to pre-primary and primary school.

[1] https://www.unicef.org/kosovoprogramme/media/1936/file/MICS%20Snapshots%20.pdf, page 42

Children at ECD center in Mitrovica

Jelena Radovanović is one of the educators dedicating her energy, love, and creativity to working with young children. Her class in Zerovnica village consists of children aged 3-6 years. Every day she comes up with activities that everyone can participate in. She says her main goal is to ensure that all children feel loved, accepted and are able to develop to their full potential.

"This center is vital because in remote villages like this one there are no kindergartens available. Early socialization is essential for children's development, and parents are not always able to provide it. Also, it means a lot for parents because they know their children are in safe hands while they can spend that time finishing their daily duties," she explains.

Mothers like Milena Vlašković, 28, and Dženita Vlašković, 24, particularly appreciate Jelena's work. Their closest kindergarten is in the municipal capital Zvecan (approximately five kilometers away), which is inaccessible to them as they do not drive and there are no regular buses available either.

"We cannot afford for the children to go to that kindergarten, where they could learn and be in contact with other children. As a parent, I can never replace socialization with other children and all those activities Jelena is having them be part of," Milena says.

"Also, they are much calmer when they come home after spending time and playing in the center," Dzenita adds, smiling.

Children at ECD center in Mitrovica

Before COVID-19, the center in Zerovnica was open every working day from 10am to 2pm. However, this was reduced during the pandemic to three hours in the mornings, and there was even a period where the center completely closed and learning went online. As of September 2021, the center is again open from 10am to 2pm with extraordinary measures followed to ensure children’s safety.

"Besides children missing playing and learning with their friends, I think online classes during the pandemic were even harder for parents. They had no one who could help take care of their children while finishing their daily tasks. They had to do it all by themselves and find time to work with their children as well", Jelena says.

Children could not wait to get back to "school", both mothers confirm. 

"They missed their friends and their teacher," Dzenita says, adding that she sent dozens of messages to Jelena asking when the center would be opened again.

The bond these children make with educators continues after they leave the center. Since the center is on the same premises as the primary school, the children still visit Jelena during the day even if it is just to say hi.

Thanks to the support of the Austrian Development Cooperation, (ADA), UNICEF is able to reach more marginalized children and ensuring equal access to early education for children.