Kindergartens without borders – where communities gather

Dejana (6) can’t wait to start school and meet new friends, but she is also looking forward to learning how to read and write.

Misa Stojiljkovic
Dejana playing in kindergarten
UNICEF Serbia/2016/Vas

10 August 2016

“I get up, brush my teeth, get dressed, and I’m off to kindergarten.”

This is how Dejana Ametovic, a bright-eyed six-year-old girl with a warm, inquisitive look on her face describes her weekday routine.

Sometimes she wakes up too early, eager to join her friends, her mother Sladjana says.

Sladjana can’t begin to describe how important the kindergarten and being with other children is to her daughter. “She’s a very friendly child, everyone loves her there,” the mother says proudly, walking down the stairs of their house with Dejana.

The kindergarten is a mere five-minute walk from their home.

Kindergartens in Serbia’s rural areas are few in number and difficult to reach, and children can rarely attend.

Sladjana Ametovic says that Dejana started kindergarten in September 2015, when the Nasa Radost pre-school opened a branch in the village of Krasava, near Krupanj.

It’s next to the Borivoje Z. Milojevic Primary School, in an adjoining building, opened as part of the Kindergarten without Borders II – Quality Inclusive Preschool Education in Serbia project.

In May 2014, the worst floods in more than a century hit Serbia. Krupanj was one of the most affected municipalities, and the disaster left a devastated community in its wake. They were thrilled to hear that UNICEF would help to restore the kindergarten.

Unfortunately, kindergartens in Serbia’s rural areas are few in number and difficult to reach, and children can rarely attend.

This is, perhaps, why the entire Krasava community helped rebuild their own, and it’s their love and warmth one can feel immediately in this bright, open space.

Every single detail in the room - from the children’s drawings on the walls to oversized cartoon character standees carved by the parents - demonstrates the effort and love invested by the children and adults alike.

There’s also a manicured lawn in the backyard, with the usual playground props, and a few trees for natural shade. It would be very nice if urban pre-schools were as green and beautiful as this one.

Dejana says the slide is her favourite, but her kindergarten teacher, Tanja, says she likes the sandbox just as much.

Dejana smiling at the camera while drawing with her peers
UNICEF Serbia/2016/Vas
Walking to pre-school with her mother is part of Dejana’s happy workday routine.

Aside from the wonderful playground and cosy interior, one can’t but notice a few moms and even a granny in the room.

The teacher, Tanja Grujicic, says there’s nothing unusual about this; they love to come and take part in kindergarten activities with the children. She explains the gate stays open in the afternoon, and the children can come with their parents or grandparents to play.

The kindergarten is now a gathering place for the community in Krasava, a place where the adults, too, can come and spend some time together. The kindergarten is attended by 12 children aged between three and five, and eight children attended the preschool preparatory programme during this school year.

A typical kindergarten day is four hours long – from eight to noon – when children can play and socialise, but follow a prescribed educational programme. While the teacher is speaking, the children are at their desks, making collages out of torn-up, crumbled pieces of paper, which they paint with watercolours.

Aside from the wonderful playground and cosy interior, one can’t but notice a few moms and even a granny in the room.

The children are not the only ones who are totally absorbed in the art project – the four mothers and the twins’ granny are all wrapped up in the cutting, gluing and painting.

After an hour, when their work’s done, the children go to wash their hands, and the mothers and teachers clear up the desks, disinfect them and serve biscuits and tea. The children wash their hands again, put their shoes on and go out.

While Dejana is playing with her friends, her mother Sladjana fondly remembers the recital organised by the kindergarten recently.

“The ‘Let’s Grow Up With Dance’ recital was performed in Krupanj. We all rehearsed together with the children. I loved those days, we had a relaxed week, and felt like children again.”

The kindergarten teacher says the performance in Krupanj was equally enjoyable for the children, teachers and parents. Sladjana knows only too well how lucky she is to have a kindergarten in her village, 200 meters away from home.

“If the kindergarten was anywhere else, Dejana wouldn’t attend. I couldn’t possible take her, not only because I’m too busy, but also because it’s impossible to get there. Who would drive her, and how could I pay for it?”

It is precisely these words that illustrate the importance of the Kindergartens without Borders project, implemented by UNICEF, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development, in collaboration with the Center for Interactive Pedagogy (CIP) and other partners, and with financial support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Apart from a major boost to community cohesion, the kindergarten also provides a unique opportunity for the children in the villages of Krasava and Likodra to have access to early childhood education and development, increasing their chances of completing primary school successfully and further continuing their education.

Dejana Ametovic can’t wait to start school and meet new friends, but she is also looking forward to learning how to read and write.

“Right now, I can only write ‘mom’ and ‘dad’,” she says, proudly showing a little piece of paper with the two words written on it. Her mother remembers how different things were with her older son, David. He was never a pre-schooler, and it was very difficult for him to adapt when he started school.

“He was crying every day for a month, and I had to wait for him. It was all new to him, before he started school he spent his days with me, and once he started school he thought I was going to abandon him”.

David, who is now 14 years old, has successfully completed seventh grade. His chances of success later in life are much better than his parents’ were.

International experience confirms that children who attend kindergarten between the ages of three and six are more likely to complete higher education.

Despite the benefits of early childhood education, only every fourth child aged between three and five is attending kindergarten in Krupanj.

This fact has a particular bearing on devastated municipalities like Krupanj, where development lags behind the country average by 50%.

It is also important for Serbia as a whole, because studies have showed that the progress and prosperity of any society is directly linked to the number of children that have access to early childhood learning and development.

Dejana is lucky to have parents who are aware of the importance of education. Not only did they send their own children to school, but they also motivated parents of other Roma children in the village to send their children to kindergarten. Tanja Grujicic attests to this; “See Anabela and Valentina there? They have joined us recently, only because Dejana’s with us.”

Despite the benefits of early childhood education, only every fourth child aged between three and five is attending kindergarten in Krupanj.

As in other underdeveloped and rural areas in Serbia, kindergartens either do not exist in villages, or they are too far away for the parents to take their children. If a developed society is what we aspire to, children aged three-to-five deserve a much stronger focus.

This is why the project Kindergartens without Borders needs to continue and expand.