Kindergartens without borders

More children from isolated and vulnerable families in Serbia are enjoying a pre-school education – thanks to inspiration from UNICEF’s Kindergarten without Borders concept.

Guy De Launey
Children play in kindergarten
UNICEF Serbia/2014/Shubuckl

30 September 2014

Depending on the weather, it can be bleak or beautiful in Jadranska Lesnica.

This village in the hills about 2 hours’ drive west of Serbia’s capital Belgrade forms part of the rural heart of the country. Many of the two thousand people who live here are farmers. 

Such a place could make for a magical childhood – or a lonely one. And isolation is the last thing that pre-school children need.

The years from three to five are particularly crucial for development – and not just in a child’s early life. The care, attention and stimulation they receive at this age can have a major impact on what happens to them later in life. 

“Our primary task is somehow to expand access to pre-school education and the quality of pre-school education,” says UNICEF Serbia’s Education Specialist, Tanja Rankovic. 

“Almost half the children from three to five years old do not attend.

These are mostly children from vulnerable groups – children from poor families, in rural areas, or Roma children. For them, pre-school programmes are particularly useful and they’re getting the benefits.”

For UNICEF, the answer was the Kindergarten without Borders project, in partnership with Serbia’s government and the Centre for Interactive Pedagogy (CIP) – with financial support from IKEA and the Novak Djokovic Foundation.

It started by targeting the ten municipalities within Serbia with the lowest rates of pre-school enrolment.  Loznica, which takes in Jadranska Lesnica, was among them. 

Under the project, existing kindergartens have been renovated and additional places for children created.

New playgrounds have been built or old ones renovated. Training has been given on how to create better quality pre-school programmes – not just to teachers, but local authorities and parents as well. 

Indeed, the participation of parents is vital to the whole concept.  They have received encouragement to be active participants at their children’s pre-school facilities – getting involved in a way that benefits not just their own offspring, but future generations as well. 

In Jadranska Lesnica this meant starting from scratch – there had never been a pre-school here before.

Parents truly took matters into their own hands, renovating the derelict former residence of the long-since-departed village doctor.

By the time they were finished, they had transformed a run-down wreck into a colourful place where children could play and learn together. 

Now the Bambi Pre-school seems like the perfect venue for the area’s young children. Its white-washed walls are covered with rainbow-hued murals and there is plenty of space to roam outside, with unparalleled views across the surrounding countryside.

Goran Lukic points with pride to the photographs of his 4 year-old daughter Andrea on the school noticeboard and bashfully acknowledges that he put in a fair share of the rebuilding work himself. 

“I did it because of my child and all the other children,” he says.

“It’s something that makes us all happy – this is the only place where they can play and spend some time in a good way.”

“I never had the chance to go to kindergarten myself,” he continues.

“But I can tell the difference between those children who have been to kindergarten and those who haven’t. They know more – and my Andrea has become more mature.”

Kindergarten without Borders means that all children should be included – and the Bambi pre-school in Jadranska Lesnica is living up to that ideal.

It has reached out to Roma families living in the area to encourage them to give their children the advantage of an early years education. 

Teaching assistant Dijana Miladinovic plays a crucial role in this respect. As a Roma person herself, she uses her own success as a way of demonstrating the potential value of pre-school. 

Children and teachers play in kindergarten
UNICEF Serbia/2014/Shubuckl

“The greatest benefit for Roma children is that they’re going to meet other children and peers – and they will acquire freedom through playing,” she says.

“They’ll learn how to display their drawings or express their own opinions. In kindergarten, through games and playing with other children, they know they can express themselves freely and that they have rights like all other children.”

Not far away in the slightly larger and similarly named settlement of Lesnica, another pre-school is in full swing – with Lego bricks rapidly stacking up and children nipping in and out of the playhouse.

Again, it has been participating in the Kindergarten without Borders project – and parents like Dragisa Simic have enthusiastically thrown themselves into the venture. 

“I was playing here with the children, and one day there were some people from CIP who invited me to attend workshops,” he says. 

Before long, Dragisa found himself helping to design the pre-school environment for his two sons.

Five year-old Nikola has already been enjoying the pre-school for almost two years.

Dragisa recognises that with two working parents and farm tasks to take care of at other times, the pre-school offers educational and social opportunities that Nikola simply would not have received at home. 

Teaching assistant, Dijana Miladinovic, plays a crucial role in the community – by encouraging Roma families to give their children the advantage of an early years education.
UNICEF Serbia/2014/Shubuckl
Teaching assistant, Dijana Miladinovic, plays a crucial role in the community – by encouraging Roma families to give their children the advantage of an early years education.

“When we come back from work we are so busy – we would probably let him watch cartoons just so he wouldn’t bother us. That’s why this kindergarten is like a god-given gift.”

The success of the Lesnica kindergarten – the area’s first for two decades, says Dragisa – led directly to the foundation of the Bambi facility in Jadranska Lesnica.

Parents decided to share some of the funding they had received so that families in the smaller settlement could also benefit from having a pre-school. 

As far as Serbia’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development is concerned, Kindergarten without Borders has already proved its worth – and it is preparing to apply the lessons learned to other areas of the country. 

“The government will support phase two of this programme,” says Bogoljub Lazarevic, head of the Ministry’s group for pre-school education.

“I am sure will make a step forward in terms of diversification of the existing programmes and we will expand the programme to new areas.”

The ultimate goal is for all of Serbia’s children to have access to preschool education. There is still a long way to go before that will be achieved.

But in places like Jadranska Lesnica, it seems that the project has achieved the best possible start.