When it comes to development, there's no more important time than a child's early years. But too often, the traditional classroom -- kids sitting silently in rows, teacher lecturing at the front -- can be off-putting, to say the least. So why not build early education according to what young children like? That usually means lots of play, a place that makes them feel welcome, and one where they are free to say what they think. That's the basis for Step by Step, an education-reform project that focuses mainly on countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Professionals involved in the program gathered in Prague this week for their annual conference.
Prague, 16 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- At Angel elementary school in Prague, teacher Radmila Neubertova is talking about children's rights with her class of 9-year-olds. They're asked to explain words like bullying, safety, or danger:
Girl: "We still have danger [to explain]."
Neubertova: "What about 'danger' then?"
Girl: "When I am alone in the woods."
Neubertova: "That's when you feel unsafe?"
Girl: "If I'm lost, say."
Neubertova: "What are you afraid of?"
Girl: "I'm scared some animal will jump out at me."
Boy: "A bear!"
The children sit in a circle on the floor, throwing out their ideas and telling stories from their own personal experiences.
When they return to their desks for a math exercise, it's in the form of a game -- and the seats are in clusters, not rows. All of those afraid of math take note -- the children are actually cheering. It's a typical Step by Step approach, similar to what you'll now find in classrooms in some 30 former communist countries.
Rochelle Mayer is an American early childhood specialist who was visiting the class. She spoke to RFE/RL during the raucous school break. "The discussion was very characteristic of what you would want to see happen in the Step by Step classroom because of the topic discussed, about safety both physical and psychological," Mayer said. "The issues of bullying and how you're treated at home and in the classroom came up, and the children were very interested and involved and sharing their experiences. That's very much what you're trying to accomplish. And I also felt that when children went into their groups and did bingo, a math game, and they had to work together as a team to try to win, there was great enthusiasm. And I felt throughout there was a very nice relationship, a rapport between the adult and the children. It looked very fun to be there and involved."
The ideas behind Step by Step seem obvious. Help young children learn through play. Encourage them to think for themselves. Relate the things they're learning to the real world. Make all children welcome. Get parents to join in. Be tolerant of minorities. Include disabled children. The bonus is that those are some of the things that help foster democratic principles, too.
But often parents and teachers are skeptical and worry their children won't do well academically. Step by Step people say the reverse is true -- often they do better.
Regina Sabaliauskiene, the Step by Step country director for Lithuania, told RFE/RL: "Once, one parent came into the office [of a Step by Step school] and asked: 'I can't understand what you're doing with our [son]. He's going to the first grade for almost a month and each day when he's coming home I ask what have you been doing at school? Always the same answer, "We've been playing." So please tell me when you will start to teach them.' After that the principal said, 'OK, go together with us in the classroom and we can observe how they are playing.' The parent came, and after he observed the play, he came back to her office and said: 'What do you think -- that they are all Einsteins? Why are you giving them such difficult tasks?' Really, children, when they are learning through play, they can't recognize that someone is teaching them. They are having fun, but really they are learning a lot."
Step by Step was launched nine years ago by George Soros and his Open Society Institute and is aimed at children 10 and younger. It's now an international network that trains teachers and professionals -- 200,000 of them so far. It provides manuals and children's books translated into many languages. Projects run by Step by Step have attracted funding from the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the European Union.
The idea behind it is simple, but not simplistic, Cornelia Cincilei said. She's the program director for Moldova, which has 350 participating kindergartens and schools. Cincilei said it harnesses a child's natural curiosity and desire to explore, as she illustrates with a story of what happened when a Step by Step kindergarten merged with a traditional one.
"They had to divide the children into two classrooms, and in a week the parent of a child who was moved from Step by Step to a regular classroom came to the principal and said, 'Why did you punish us? My child stopped asking questions!' That was an indicator of how the program enhances children's curiosity and desire to discover things," Cincilei said.
Step by Step schools also try to be as inclusive as possible -- and for some children, that might mean their first experience in a normal classroom.
Dina Aidzhanova is the Step by Step country director for Kazakhstan. Three years ago, she and her Kyrgyz colleague set up a joint project to help disabled children -- especially from environmentally damaged areas -- join regular schools.
"Several years ago, these kind of children were isolated, and they had no model how to develop themselves because they were in specialized schools where all children were disabled. Our idea was to help these children and to make the first efforts in this direction. It is very painful, and our national tragedy is not to pay attention to these children," Aidzhanova said.
Aidzhanova's project trained teachers and arranged for participating schools to become more accessible for disabled students. They got some funding from USAID and scraped together everything from wheelchairs to books in Braille. Now, there are some 70 disabled children in Kazakhstan and nearly 40 in Kyrgyzstan in Step by Step classrooms in regular schools.
It's a small start, Aidzhanova said. But a heroic step, almost a revolution, she added. And that, the Step by Step people hope, is a bit like their program itself.