Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 296 | Marzo 2006


Latin America

What Kind of People Are We Forming In Our Kindergartens?

In this first of a four-part series on early education, Peralta, a pedagogue and anthropologist who was director of Chile’s National Kindergarten Board for nearly nine years, muses on the history, purpose and current state of infant education In Latin America.

María Victoria Peralta

The most recent contributions to neurology have shown that three quarters of the neuronal connections that human beings use during their lifetime for all kinds of learning and behavior are formed in the first three years of life. This explains the vital importance of initial education and of providing it at the right time. We shouldn’t wait until children are three, four or five years old to send them to preschool. Certain pedagogic efforts should be started as soon as they’re born, even before. Initial education can be very active, comprehensive, participatory and relevant, but typically only starts when the child is five, by which time a lot of opportunity has been lost. And in Latin America we can’t afford to lose any more.

A history we hardly know

Despite its great importance, infant education, a first educational level that is also known by many other names—preschool, initial education, nursery school and kindergarten—has been devalued in our continent. There’s no book detailing the history of infant education in Latin America, because we still haven’t given it the relevance it deserves.

We can identify four stages in infant education’s history in Latin America. The first is ethno-education, as practiced by our original peoples. Educating children during the first years was obviously not the result of European influence in Latin America. The peoples inhabiting the Americas before the arrival of Columbus already knew about and practiced it, and still do, yet we know very little about this page in our history.

The second stage began with independence and the first republics, when European influence was felt through the legacy of great male and female pioneers of infant education of the caliber of Comenius, Pestallozi, Froebel, Monte¬ssori and Owens. Their rich ideas and pedagogical criteria were challenging because they were all ahead of their time, creating infant education when psychology, sociology and anthropology didn’t yet exist, based on pedagogic knowledge alone and using the paradigm of active education, convinced that a child had to learn by doing when such an idea was unheard of even in higher education.

The third stage can be dated around the 1950s, when pilot centers started to be established in some teacher training schools in certain countries. During this stage, it began to be discovered that infant education can really help provide an answer to acute social problems. As a result, governments increased its coverage, more as a way to feed children and guarantee them basic health than as a specific educational proposal.

We’re currently in the fourth stage, in which the imbalance between coverage and quality is starting to even out. The idea has started to spread that while a program of comprehensive attention to children cannot ignore health and hygiene, the investment will only be profitable with a high-quality educational component.

Our indigenous peoples already knew

The contribution of ethno-education to infant education hasn’t been recognized even though there are still indigenous peoples in our countries and they constitute the majority of the population in several of them.

The illustrations of the book Cartas al Rey by Guamán Poma, a Peruvian indigenous man, represent the stages of children’s development: in the crib, once they start crawling, when they can walk, when they start to play… All of this is staggering considering that the book was written in 1550. Among indigenous peoples the education of the smallest children was completely centered in the family and the community. Now we have to make great efforts to get the family and the community to participate in children’s education.

Our continent’s indigenous peoples have always practiced the “learn by doing” principle. Children learned by doing significant, concrete and essential things with their mothers in the vegetable garden and their fathers in the fields or at sea. In the past 20 years, worrying about children from birth or even before birth has startedbeing considered a principle of Western education, and anthropologists and ethno-historians have found interesting forerunners of it in the indigenous Americas. For example, for two thousand years the nomad peoples of the Beagle Channel—where the Americas end and Charles Darwin passed as he circumnavigated the world—have named a “Godmother” for their children as soon as they’re born to help exercise the baby by moving its legs in the form of riding a bicycle and a number of other massages. Western education now dubs this “early stimulation.”

We now know that children can learn in the womb, distinguishing movements, sounds, light and shadow. In fact, there’s even a World Prenatal Education Association today. Indigenous peoples already knew this. As soon as a child was conceived, any mother who was positively awaiting her child would place herself in the moonlight or by the sea or before other natural forces to bring the coming baby into proximity with those energies. We would like to see such an attitude among today’s mothers; we’d like all children to be awaited and desiredlike that, because neurology has shown the importance of this energy for the future development of the child’s life.

European experiences come to Latin America

The first experiences of infant education were established in several Latin American countries around 1850. European educators came to Latin America and introduced the kinds of kindergartens—particularly Froebelian ones—that were emerging in Europe. Some governments even invested in sending some of their educators to European countries to learn more about such innovative experiences.

If ethno-education had worked in what we now call the informal sphere—the community, the family—these first experiences were established in the formal sphere. Concentrating on children between the ages of four and six, they had a rich vision that consisted of three central ideas: an active child, a participating family and comprehensive education. The principle of individuality dominated, with each girl or boy seen as unique. Although the principle of active education was not the same in the mid-19th century as today, those pioneers had already formulated the main principle that a child learns by thinking, feeling and acting.

The ideas that came to Latin America and were taught in almost all teacher training schools were and still are mainly those of the German Frederic Froebel. Somewhat later some taught the ideas of the Italian María Montessori, followed by those of the Belgian Ovide Decroly. One page of our pedagogic history few people know is that both Montessori and Decroly personally visited Latin America: Montessori to Buenos Aires and Decroly to Colombia. I found a fabulous book on Decroly’s time in Colombia in the Royal Brussels Library that nobody in Colombia knew existed and I’m currently translating it. It was when Decroly was organizing his Active School, and on discovering that a school with active methods was being established in Colombia, he financed his own trip there to find out about it firsthand.

During this stage, coverage was “for show”; there wasn’t the least intention of providing coverage to the whole infant population. Kindergartens were pilot experiences, annexed to the teacher training schools. At that time the first teachers of infant education began to be formed and that level thus to be professionalized.

Preschool was an incredible
novelty that’s still misunderstood

Mexico became one of the pioneer countries with the arrival in Veracruz of European teachers. Estefanía Castañeda played a crucial role in that country, establishing the first, basically Froebelian kindergarten in 1896.

In Chile, everything for our first kindergarten came from Germany. The whole Froebelian curriculum was imported and Froebel’s photo was even hung on the walls. All of this was the work of Leopoldina Maluska, an Austrian contracted by the Chilean government for this very mission. One of the first curricular items Froebel had proposed for his kindergartens were three little balls hanging from a stick and painted with the primary colors. Mrs. Maluska “nationalized” the balls by painting them the colors of the Chilean flag, a seemingly simple idea that expressed her desire to give everything European a national touch.

In Costa Rica the “revolutionary” who established infant education was writer Carmen Lyra, a truly incredible woman. A communist persecuted by the police, Lyra managed to leave the country disguised as a newspaper seller.

In each Latin American country, infant education was established by a diversity of people without resources or sufficient support but whose hearts were in their work because they saw how important it was to educate during the first years of life. Infant education was an incredible novelty. For example, I’ve looked at the minutes of the Chilean parliament when the first kindergarten was established and found highly recognized parliamentarians recorded as saying things such as, “What’s the point of this? Nobody needs to go to a kindergarten to be educated. Just look at me!”

All of us who have worked at this level know such thoughts still exist and that many don’t understand the importance of educating at this level, which is often looked down on because it’s thought that nothing relevant can be happening there as children only play and sing and paint. Despite these misunderstandings, the first experiences were consolidated and achieved a high level of quality. Being few in number, it was easier to provide control and follow up. The problem was coverage, not quality.

Infancy makes it into the statistics

During this third stage the dramatic reality faced by small children throughout the continent started to be revealed in the different countries’ national statistics. In the 1950s, infant mortality and morbidity began to be measured, and their high levels had a great impact. It must be borne in mind that not all under-six-year-olds have been registered in Latin America yet so we don’t even know how many children are in that age group. Many children are still being born, getting sick or dying in Latin America without ever getting into the official statistics; only their parents know about them. This explains why statistics on infant education in Latin America are still very precarious and the best we have are approximate figures.

During this third stage, it began to be thought that infant education could help defend children’s lives and that kindergartens could help stop children roaming the streets malnourished and dirty. But formal education is very expensive—a classroom, a teacher and enough seats for every child—so more economical, non-formal models began to be established. One of the most common was a community model in which mothers and community agents acted as educators. The community made many contributions, not because it was in a position to do so, but because the state still wasn’t committed to this educational level.

“Guardería”: A limiting word

There was no institutional structure for infant education. The education, health, family and welfare ministries that currently assume this area still had no infant education section, department or service. They were starting to appear during those years, but the first curricula for infant education only began to arrive from abroad in the 1980s, when economic growth collapsed but both the population and the infant mortality kept growing. These curricula were different from the pioneering ones based on Froebel, Montessori and Decroly, and some were accompanied by quite significant resources. The cognitive curriculum, personalization-based curricula and many Spanish-based approaches began to appear in our countries, and while some of these proposals were sifted through for quality, the greatest efforts were aimed at establishing rather than evaluating them.

The word guardería (literally “crèche”) started to be used in Latin America during this stage, expressing the purpose of “guarding” the children, in the sense of protecting and saving them. The term, which is proving very hard to eliminate, is still used today. It’s obviously not the best term for defining quality education because the concept limits kindergartens to an institution where children play so that “nothing happens” to them, without expressing the fact that they’re educated there. But certain countries began using words such as kindergarten, maternal garden, children’s garden...

During this stage initial education also started to become a political objective. In Guatemala, infant refectories and guarderías were founded in the early fifties as two “social works of the revolution.” The same happened in revolutionary Cuba. Becoming a “political objective” was a great advance for infant education because it meant the state had to invest in education during the first years of childhood. This educational level thus began to be institutionalized during that stage. Cuba adapted the Soviet model of Infant Circles to its own culture and needs, and still uses that initial profile, placing great emphasis on health and hygiene without ever forgetting the educational aspect. In Chile the National Kindergarten Board, which is almost an Infant Education Ministry and which I directed for almost nine years, was established during that same period. It’s now a huge institution with 6,000 officials and all kinds of technical teams, and covers 130,000 girls and boys up to the age of six.

We’re now in a better stage,
with more commitment and opportunities

The fourth stage started around 2000, when concern about the quality of initial education began to increase. Why is this another stage and why can we say that it’s different and better? First, Latin American governments have made important commitments on early childhood. Summits of Presidents, education ministers and the social sector have resulted in the signing of all kinds of declarations favoring early childhood within the framework of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This in turn has led to an official commitment from all countries to concern themselves with educating their population during its first years of life.

This is an enormous step. Twenty years ago, when infant education directors in Latin America would meet, some would say, “It’s really hard to push the issue because there’s nothing in the national budgets or in public policies. We only get the leftover crumbs if there are any.” But that’s changed; we now have a legal framework. Various surveys also reveal that parents are now more aware of the importance of initial education. Infant education is no longer seen as a place where children are just “guarded,” looked after or prepared for basic education. Although these aspects are also important, parents are starting to understand the relevance of this stage of their children’s life and the importance of education in its own right during these years.

Another characteristic of this stage is the emergence of all kinds of international agencies and organizations working in this direction—UNESCO, UNICEF, OAS—while the international financial organizations are also becoming interested in infant education. This has meant an abundance of resources that have reached all countries, which represents both an advantage and an ethical challenge to organization and honesty. In addition to the resources admittedly not always being used well due to widespread lack of professionalism and technical capacity and to the corruption in our countries, they are also often not wisely invested or equitably distributed, with certain organizations managing large amounts and others none at all.

Another characteristic of the current stage is that all Latin American countries have now designed national curricula, admittedly with varying levels of participation and support, but drawn up on this side of the ocean all the same. Not a single Latin American country is left that that doesn’t have its own explicit policies for quality infant education. They might be worth little more than the paper they’re written on, but at least now we have something to refer to. Previously we couldn’t insist that the Education Ministry “invest in quality infant education,” because nobody saw it as important. But we’ve taken that first step and it’s now a question of moving from paper and discourse to practice and reality.

From Mexico to Patagonia

This new stage is also marked by other very relevant and positive characteristics. All of Latin America’s health, life expectancy, general education and infant education indicators are up from two decades ago. There is also greater economic growth, which, despite the different rhythms in each country and the fact that the growth isn’t always well distributed, allows us more possibility of designing educational programs with greater quality than before. In the 21st century we’ve already established initial education in all countries from Mexico to Patagonia. For example, in the southernmost part of Chile, very near Cape Horn on the last island of Latin America, there’s a non-formal program called “distance kinder” where an educator visits once or twice a year in a Chilean Navy boat and for the rest of the year sends out a weekly radio broadcast to all families in the region. Infant education has been massively extended across the continent, through urban and rural zones, isolated areas, population centers and indigenous areas. That wasn’t the case 20 or 30 years ago. The coverage is widespread and there are diverse models throughout Latin America.

In a research study I worked on in 1998 with OAS infant education specialist Gaby Fujimoto, we tried to list all the non-formal initial education models in Latin America. We managed to identify around 60 models of all kinds, from direct attendance, such as a kindergarten where a community teacher works with a group of children in a way resembling a formal model, to distance learning, such as the Chilean model I just mentioned. There are radio programs for the highly marginalized new urban settlements in Lima. A program titled “Educate Your Children” is being developed in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, where people from the community work with children in the open air. There’s infant education in Otavalo, an Ecuadorian indigenous community of big traders and farmers, where the community leader teaches the children in the vegetable garden. There are televised programs and others where the mothers go with their babies for a number of days to learn how to educate them themselves. The range of models is enormous.

The challenge now is to maintain
diversity and coverage, assuring quality

The range of quality is also enormous, from highly participatory programs with clear criteria, to mere guarderías with no educational level at all where the children are just watched over to ensure nothing happens to them. A few years ago we had only one or two models, but now there’s a wealth of them, a model for every reality. It makes no sense to create any kind of kindergarten if I’m in a forest community with 12 little children who live kilometers apart. I have to put together either itinerant teams or distance programs or home schooling; something adapted to that reality. And if I’m in a market in Bolivia, where women sell their goods with their babies by their side, I have to do what’s already being done in certain parts of La Paz: activity programs for the tiny children of these market vendors so the babies don’t cry when their moms have to attend to more customers.

The current challenge is to conserve the coverage and the diversity of models while assuring quality. Many non-formal programs—and many formal ones for that matter—display tremendous quality problems, whether due to limited resources or training, lack of an educational plan or specified relevant quality criteria or not having worked on their implementation. A good curriculum isn’t enough. I have to train the community educators to appropriate it with discernment and be able to translate it into suitable practices.

Children still play a very passive role and the educators are only concerned with welfare aspects such as food and care in many of the current models. There’s also an abundance of mass techniques: all the children doing the same thing such as sticking the same small piece of paper of the same color onto the same little bunny at the same time. This doesn’t stimulate thinking or making choices. In many nursery schools we see children waiting or bored, children who would be revealed to have many deficiencies were we to evaluate their development. This can also be observed in programs sponsored by education ministries or municipalities, despite being more expensive centers with official support.

Doing the same thing en masse also affects quality. Opting for coverage has meant that we in Latin America work in formal education kindergartens with 30, 50, even 60 children in a classroom. It’s still possible to do something with 35 children, depending on what other help you have, but you can’t do much with 50 three-, four-and five-year-olds, even with one or two helpers.

Our future’s at stake

The “banking education” Paulo Freire referred to is still very visible in Latin American infant education, where we find classrooms more suited to universities: rows of desks, the teacher up front and the children ready to receive and carry out some order. This top-down, homogeneous, mass-produced learning leaves no room for a child’s intervention, the search for sense, learning what the children would like or interests them; everything is standardized with the sole objective of controlling the children better so they don’t move around so much.

One characteristic of these experiences is what we call the “halfway up” classroom, where the children are seated from the midpoint of the classroom back, there are no materials in their reach and no attractive corners, while the adult works from a desk, which should never happen in infant education. With small children, the adult must be in the corners mixing with them, always getting down to their level. You can tell if there’s an active or passive curriculum just by looking at the room layout. Unfortunately, many educational experiences in Latin America involve a predominantly passive role for the children and a top-down directing role for the adults in charge of them.

These quality-related problems should worry us. There’s a huge gulf between this kind of infant education and our duty as countries. We say we want creative, enterprising populations with initiative, people who come up with things, but our infant education is mass-producing children, homogenizing them, limiting them. We’re forming submissive children, who learn from kindergarten that they’re expected to be quiet, without moving, and do what they’re told. What kind of human beings, what citizens are we forming by opting for this path?

There are sometimes as many as two or three babies to a cot in many Latin American crèches because there isn’t even space for enough cots. Those babies will then move on to a kindergarten where they receive cookie cutter education whose only objective is to keep them calm and quiet. Then they’ll enter basic education, which also has enormous quality problems. And it’ll be the same old story in intermediary education.

If education is so lacking in quality during the first few years following birth, the most plastic stage of a human being’s life, what do we expect Latin Americans to turn out like? The situation is dramatic. Our heads of state and other decision-makers aren’t always clear that our countries’ future identity is at stake during those years. Everybody says we want a trained, productive, enterprising population, but if people haven’t been thinking during their first years, when the brain develops the most, what thinking will they do later, when we ask them to be ingenious in their work?

Educational quality is the most serious issue facing us. We have to seek all ways possible to establish these concerns broadly and quickly, to get them debated and discussed in the media so the decision-makers feel questioned. We have to make the issue of quality in education more relevant, so it’s understood as a human not a technical problem; as an issue in which our future is at stake.

The challenge of quality

There are also very good experiences, which show us that good things can be done even when we work with large groups, when our teachers aren’t paid well and when we don’t have tons of sophisticated didactic materials. I’ve traveled across Latin America and have put together many pages about bad education, but I’ve also collected many about good education in which the quality is based on our human, cultural and natural strengths.

That’s the challenge: how to provide quality education without copying a model from other countries that’s based on good materials and few children per classroom. There were no more than 12 to 15 children in all the kindergartens I’ve visited in Europe. It’s very easy to provide quality education when you have 15 children in a room and so many good didactic materials are available that just interacting with them advances children’s learning. In February 2004 I visited a crèche in England that even had computers! In Scotland I visited several nursery schools and in one the classroom library had over 400 storybooks! In my role as the Chilean Education Ministry’s national infant education coordinator that same year I had finally managed to get exactly two good storybooks per classroom in half of our kindergartens—and that in a country with better economic indicators than other countries in the region have.

With what we are and what we have

Right now in Latin America we have the whole range: from teachers with masters in infant education, the highest degree possible in this field, to the mom who takes on a community kindergarten with or without training—and most often without. While I don’t undervalue the good will of such moms, they almost certainly received a top-down, authoritarian, punitive education and, with the best intentions, will probably end up reproducing the same model. They’ve probably seen qualified kindergarten teachers that shout at the children and keep them all seated, aping the same actions in unison, so will reproduce that bad model, again with the best of intentions.

We have limited human resources and have to train them. We also have limited materials, but that doesn’t hinder good experiences. I visited a kindergarten in a little town in Zacatecas, Mexico. In the town square there was a shack with a sign on it that read “Kindergarten.” I looked inside and it was dark and ugly. What would kids do in a place like this? The teacher told me, “No, no, this is only where we store the tables and chairs; the children go outside every day.” She worked with the children in the town square, and also with all the people who passed through. In the afternoon, they stored the tables and chairs in the shack. It seemed a brilliant example of creativity to me: she had all the space she wanted in the square, with a concrete floor, gardens, benches and people passing by.

Many others are in the midst of exuberant nature, leaves and flowers of a thousand colors, all shapes and sizes of stones, with earth, sticks and insects, yet they complain that they don’t have the materials they need to work! Nature, local traditions, cosmovision... all this provides thousands of “materials” that we think to don’t use. Having learned so much from the European model, we’ve lacked the capacity to build curricula based on who we are.

We’re very limited in our analysis of what we’re doing in initial education. There’s still a very small critical mass of people analyzing what we do. We still think of infant education as something ingenuous, easy, innocent. At the end of the day it boils down to sticking up a picture of Donald Duck and there you have it. Have you never thought it might be better to put up a Diego Rivera mural or a Nicaraguan primitivist painting? Plenty of educators believe that buying all Mickey Mouse items is the best contribution to children’s education. We haven’t gotten accustomed to analyzing the impact of our cultural selection or the possible consequences of spending years telling Latin American children traditional European stories. The road to quality involves analyzing and reviewing everything: the songs we sing with the children, the stories we tell them and the words and gestures we use, because there’s both an explicit curriculum and a hidden one and everything transmits something.

Why do we educate?

We have very serious problems with the formation of educators. The first question we should ask ourselves is whether we educate to reproduce inequity or to transform society. If we opt for the former—as it seems many have done in infant education, thinking it’s a minor issue—we end up doing trivial things in the classroom without reflecting on what we’re doing, and will spend years that way. But if I’m an educator for social transformation, I have to analyze myself permanently to see what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.

An educator in Costa Rica once complained to me that the Education Ministry was very managerial in its application of the preschool curriculum. When I asked him how that rigidity was expressed, he answered, “In the super-visor’s visit.” “And how often does the supervisor visit you?” “Once a year.” So I pointed out to him how much freedom he actually has to do what he thinks is good. “You supervise what happens in your classroom!” That was what Paulo Freire taught us: re-examine our practices, rethink what we’re doing and build the pedagogy along the way. That demands reflection, study, critical capacity and a sense of criticism that has to begin with oneself.

The crucial thing in a classroom is the atmosphere, the emotional and cognitive interaction we achieve. This isn’t a question of money, it’s about knowing what I have to say to a girl or a boy to produce an intellectual conflict that brings him or her to make a hypothesis about something. It is a question of catering to each boy and girl, respecting them as individuals, detecting their strengths to support them and their weaknesses to redress them.

Involving and empowering families is key

Both in good times and in bad, our experiences have tended to reduce family participation to very secondary roles. Even though these families are often very poor, we’ve viewed them as a labor force: to make us materials, lend us their little house for a program, clean the classroom.

The rigorous Mexican researcher Silvia Schemelker has reflected on how we exploit the poor by asking so much of them around realizing infant education. She takes the case of a poor family that’s asked to let six to fifteen children hold class in its living room, which also doubles as dining room and bedroom, in exchange for some kind of payment—in Bolivia they get tins of sardines. Schemelker questions why we never ask ourselves what we’d do if asked to give over our middle-class house to a similar number of children, interrupting our family life? This is abuse, in which the state burdens poor families rather than finance infrastructure.

There have been very good experiences in which family participation isn’t just secondary and collaborative—bringing in materials or cleaning the classroom—but involves thinking together with the teacher about what the children want and how to achieve it. I recall a Chilean peasant who when I asked “What do you want for your boy?” answered, “I want him to speak better, to be a little gentleman.” So then I asked him, “Here in the kindergarten, we say hello to the children when they come in and ask how they are. Do you do the same when your boy gets home?” We need to dialogue with the family. Education is a two-way thing. If I don’t talk with the family, empower it with knowledge that then circulates among them, a lot of my work in quality infant education is lost.

It’s crucial to empower families and not worry that they won’t understand such sophisticated things. In the curricular reform we’re implementing in Chile, I’ve had to work personally with families from the rural sector, with mothers who never finished their own basic education. Yet I’ve talked to them about principles of neurology that show how hugely important the configuration adopted by the brain in the first three years of life is, and they understand. It’s very rewarding to then listen to them explain what they learned. Although they talk about “nurons,” they know very well what they are and how they inter-connect better if one talks and sings to the baby as soon as it’s born, if it’s taken out and shown different colored seeds and flowers. This is crucial, because if they understand, they’ll keep doing these things without me having to go tell them to.

Don’t say “Poor little poor child”

Many laudable infant education initiatives are being implemented in Latin America. I take my hat off to my colleagues throughout the region who are providing infant education in the most diverse scenarios and creating atmospheres in which the children are learning things, sometimes without any understanding from the national systems, any funding whatsoever and no other backing. We’ve done a lot. But it’s not enough, because all the research is now saying that one of the principles we must have clear and get across to our populations is that children are capable of much more than we have suspected up until now. Cognitive psychology, emotional studies and neurology are showing that boys and girls are much more intelligent and capable than we previously thought, and they can demonstrate it if we give them the right opportunities.

If I think, “Poor little child living in a poor environment in a poor family,” there will never be a way out of that poverty. It’s not about being idealistic; some very serious studies demonstrate that if we think certain children are limited, they’ll end up being limited, and if we believe they’re capable, they’ll develop better and be able to learn more. It’s crucial to achieve this change in the mentality of parents, relatives, educators and, above all, decision-makers, mayors, ministers and other authorities.

This argument isn’t meant to ignore the dramatic spectacles visible throughout Latin America, with malnourished, semi-naked girls and boys on the streets, playing in the garbage... Despite these dramas—in response to which Latin America possesses an enormous resilience to pick itself up again—we must admit that many things in Latin America are improving. Across the continent birth rates are falling for a number of different reasons—in some countries due to firm birth control policies and in all of them influenced by women’s incorporation into the labor force and greater access to education, arenas in which they start to understand that they don’t just want to be the mothers of seven or eight children, but also want to satisfy other personal and professional interests. This change of expectations has implications for infant education programs. With lower birth rates and greater primary education coverage, new possibilities open up for improving the quality and coverage of infant education.

Still deficient coverage and
excessive social objectives

It’s very hard to calculate Latin America’s infant education coverage with any precision, because while censuses differ from country to country very few cover 0-6 years, although UNESCO uses various age ranges: 2-6, 3-6, 4-6 and 5-6. The 5-6 year range, known as pre-school or pre-basic and linked to primary education, has fairly good education coverage in almost all our countries due to its proximity to basic education, but average coverage of the 0-6 range in Latin America was just 25% in 2002. Haiti, Central America and the Caribbean have less than 2% coverage in this age range, while Cuba is the only country on the continent—in the world for that matter—with 100% infant education coverage in the 0-6 age range. Cuba is also in first place in primary education coverage in Latin America, partly explained by the total infant education coverage.

Infant education coverage has expanded a great deal in Latin America. But a review of the infant education programs in all our countries shows that they’re expected to do everything: overcome the effects of cultural backwardness, foster community development, encourage community self-management processes, value local culture and autochthonous languages, facilitate the training of mothers and their incorporation into work outside the home, favor women’s fulfillment through the possibility of engaging in other activities—including productive ones—outside the domestic sphere, avoid infant malnutrition, favor improved quality of life by counseling improved environmental conditions, break the cycle of poverty by fostering better living conditions for children and their families, ugrade family education. Infant education is supposed to contribute to all of this, although they are all social policies. Naturally, this panacea goes way beyond what this first level can do.

The aim is to enjoy the
first six years of life to the full

The most serious problem with this excessive ambition is that the actual reference to the programs’ specific proposed educational objectives at this level is limited and very general: “Favor the child’s comprehensive development” and “generate the basis for improved insertion into basic education” are mentioned in almost all countries’ programs. Even in a general way, however, “favor happy and confident children” is talked about less now because people have gotten used to thinking that initial education’s role is to prepare children for basic education. But however important this may be, it isn’t the essential purpose of initial education. That purpose is for children to fully develop all their magnificent potential in their present stage, developing and living that stage to the full. Why prepare them for basic education instead of giving them the chance to enjoy the first six years of life, which is such an important stage?

Those first six years are the main child-oriented stage that human beings will experience in their lives. In today’s culture, adolescence starts increasingly sooner and lasts increasingly longer. The entertainment media contribute to this trend by frequently showing seven- or eight-year-old girls dressed and made up like stars, dancing and singing sensually. If the consumer culture promotes the loss of childhood, all the more reason for the objective and great purpose of initial education to safeguard that delicate period of life with its enormous potential for development. This should be expressed in all countries’ policies.

At least it’s down on paper...

It’s very interesting that all countries in Latin America have designed their curricula, frameworks and guides, that their governments and societies have come together to think about what they could do for their children’s education and have reviewed the foundations of education to subsequently define what should be learned and the criteria for achieving it. In no other continent in the world do all countries have a national curriculum. Not even all the European countries have national curricula yet, and the same is true of the countries of Asia and Oceania, not to mention Africa.

Moreover, the Latin American curricula contain very powerful ideas. For example, Nicaragua’s curricular framework states that “as part of their rights, all boys and girls will be provided the chance to be, and it is hoped they will be, true actors of the era in which they happen to live” and that “at issue is to form more participatory, creative and autonomous children with more civic responsibilities.” It’s a very powerful message. It’s an enormous challenge to strengthen these ideas among decision-makers and throughout the community so everyone understands that little children aren’t just to be pampered and “coochie cooed,” but are people with rights. Although this may not yet be worth much more than the paper it’s written on, at least it’s on paper.

It’s time to aim for quality

Even on paper, infant education curricula are highly important; they’re declared proposals for quality. In Chile we have 12,000 infant educators trying to put a good curriculum into practice; the Brazilian curriculum is pretty good; Bolivia has designed a very good one; and valiant colleagues in Uruguay are very upset because they haven’t been allowed to design a curriculum from birth to three years, just from three to six. Meanwhile, Argentina, as a federal country, has a curriculum for each state, which has its advantages and disadvantages; Peru’s curriculum is relatively new and is pretty good; the latest curriculum designed in Costa Rica, which was for the maternal-infant cycle, is quite interesting, with philosophical, sociological social, cultural, ecological, biological, neurological and pedagogical underpinnings; and Honduras has a curriculum for pre-basic education. Cuba’s is one of the oldest, with curricula corresponding to the first, second and third years of life; and Ecuador’s is one of the continent’s latest.

I participated in the design of Ecuador’s curriculum and when they were looking at the cover, they wanted a concept that would raise expectations rather than portraying children as poor little limited things. So they chose the slogan “Let’s fly high!” Although the social situation is very difficult, they’ve opted for great expectations rather than aim low.

Conditions for quality education are favorable

The current framework for achieving quality education is more favorable than ever due to the improved indicators related to the family and children; the existence of local, regional and national policies and of national curricula and institutions specialized in early childhood; increased financial resources for the sector; increased professionalism, studies and research; and greater dissemination of that knowledge through a variety of materials.

One problem in Latin America is that we do interesting things, but hardly ever systematize them. We barely know how. We record little and publish little, so when someone wants to get hold of Latin American thinking based on our realities, weaknesses and strengths, very few works are to be found. Very little knowledge is being built up in research centers, NGOs or universities because we’re always involved in activism and with are so many things to be done, few people are writing. We’re still reading books from developed countries and while we obviously learn a great deal from them, they aren’t adapted to our realities. Our own would teach us a lot more.

Do we want leaders or automatons
for the new millennium?

Another great advantage we now have is that there is strong social pressure for quality and decision-makers are more interested in the issue. And if they’re not getting interested we have to make sure they do. In Chile, we managed to get President Lagos to launch the Curricular Basis of Infant Education in the La Moneda presidential palace, the same one the world saw in flames in 1973. He presented the plan there surrounded by educators, families and small children. That’s the path we have to take. Infant education can’t be left to the good will of those of us with greater awareness. The education of our smallest children is too important. We shouldn’t rest as long as so many people with decision-making power consider education a minor issue and initial education the most minor of all.

If they want Latin America to actively participate in its own development, if they want a creative, empowered and intelligent population, if they want a democracy with real quality and if they want Latin American leaders for the new millennium, all those Presidents who continually meet at different summits have to understand that this involves forming citizenship among children from birth. They also have to understand that this has to do not simply with giving babies a rattle to play with when they’re six months old, but giving them three rattles so they can choose which one they like most. If during their first years of life children are only given what adults want, only told what they have to do and ordered not to shout, not to move, not to act, not to get up, not to express themselves, what kind of leaders are we going to form for the new millennium? We’ll end up with automatons.

Our heads of state have to realize that active citizenship doesn’t just form itself, it depends on quality education. Gabriela Mistral said that a child “is now, not tomorrow.” And that means that what happens in the first six years of life is already determining the future of our populations and our continent.

This four-part series of articles was summarized by envío from María Victoria Peralta’s seminar “Quality Education Stressing Initial Education” given in Managua in August 2004 and sponsored by Save the Children Norway.

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