by Nettie Becker
The pre-school children danced around on the area in front of the room, their colorful costumes flowing as they whirled. Behind them, a young boy played his guitar, accompanying them as the audience of the children’s parents and their foreign guests clapped their hands in rhythm to the tune and the dance. Older children, also in colorful costumes, then joined them in their dance.
And then the older children came forward, took the hands of their guests and led them out on the floor to join the dance.
It could have been a school performance anywhere in the world but this was different. It was one of those special occurrences that is only recently opening up for most of us to see.
For the children lived in the small village of La Conchita, in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, and their foreign guests were Americans. It is only over the past couple of years that a series of measures taken by the governments of Cuba and the United States have enabled Americans to travel freely to Cuba, to meet its people and to observe its institutions. And President Obama’s historic visit two years ago further opened the possibilities for this.
Last year I visited Cuba for 10 days with a group of independent American filmmakers. And in just that brief time, we were able to gain some distinct impressions of the culture of this island nation of 11 million people.
Leaving aside the political questions for other places, I was particularly interested in how a country like Cuba handles issues dealing with families and children and how it approaches the task of the education – particularly in my field, pre-school education – of its children. And were able to gain some very interesting and eye-opening information in this regard, helped enormously by the warmth and receptive attitude of every Cuban we met and their willingness to share information with us.
First was the fact that the country has made remarkable progress in the education of its entire people. Education is completely free from primary school through university. Cuba today has a literacy rate of over 96 percent, putting it at the top, along with Argentina and Uruguay, in all of Latin America. (This, incidentally, has caused a big problem because the economy is still struggling and has not created the kind of economic opportunity that is commensurate with an educated population, particularly in the professions. This has led to a large exodus of educated people,)
The village of La Conchita, Pinar del Rio, where the children performed for us is home to 8,300 people in 1,300 families. Before the Cuban revolution in 1959, in villages like this people were barely literate and children grew up with little prospect but manual labor in the cane fields as their only life. Today there are 10 elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school as well as a child care center for pre-school children and a nearby college.
Early Child Care an Entitlement
Second, in the field of early child care, the government provides the free service of an aide several times a week to women for a year after they give birth to help with the job of taking care of their infants and for other problems that may arise. For working mothers, early child care centers are available for as little as one-and-a-half pesos a month. According to official figures, about 70 percent of Cuban children from infancy to six years of age attend these centers. Teachers in these child care centers are graduates of five years of college level training or university graduates with another two years of courses in early childhood training. Teaching assistants, however, need to take only two years of basic child care courses. If they do well, they can go on for a pre-school teaching degree.
Mothers who don’t work can place their children in family run centers with qualified assistant teachers. All centers must be licensed by the government.
The curriculum emphasizes programs that stress emotional development, communication, language and motor development, healthy habits and nutrition. Most important, in early learning in these centers up to the age of six, the emphasis is on learning through play, a practice that is being increasingly stressed by early childhood educators in the United States.
Third, children with special physical or emotional problems are not expelled from pre-school because under Cuban law, all children are entitled to pre-school care and education. For children with special problems, there are special classes with teachers who have received the training to work with them, often in a one-on-one situation.
Accomplishments in Health Care
Fourth, in addition to education, one of Cuba’s great accomplishments has been in the field of health care. The country leads all of Latin America in the training of its doctors, the quality of its care and in providing health care to all its citizens. All medical and hospital care is free and prescription drugs cost very little. Life expectancy is in the eighties, leading virtually all underdeveloped countries and rivaling even the United States. Indeed, in areas like infant mortality and deaths of women in childbirth, Cuba’s rate is far lower than most countries in Latin America and compares favorably to the United States, a factor that is vital in considering the healthy development of young children.
The Cuban government has made evaluation, monitoring and research key components of its health and education policies. Future mothers and fathers receive information on healthy pregnancies and early childhood development during regular health visits to the doctor.
Breaking Down Barriers
As the children in the village and their American guests swirled around the dance floor in La Conchita, you could not help but feel good about the prospect that our two people might finally break down the barriers that have separated us for more than 50 years. And you could not help but realize that by breaking down these barriers and others around the world, people could learn so much from and about each other.
Before we left, I gave a copy of my book, Developing Quality Care for Young Children, to Marisol Pinera Nosti, the director of the village’s pre-school. She didn’t understand English very well but she asked me to autograph it for her and she held it to her heart. The gesture was symbolic of the kind of world we need for the children of Cuba, the children of our country, and indeed, for children everywhere to grow and develop. For those of us who work with children, isn’t that what our profession is all about?