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Jamaica: A smile makes it worthwhile

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©UNESCO/Gary Masters
Unlike many developing countries, Jamaica has a long tradition of early childhood care and education. Today, the focus is on helping children under 3 years old and those living in rural and disadvantaged areas.

Early childhood care and education is the theme of the 2006 ‘Education for All Global Monitoring Report’ to be launched by UNESCO and UNICEF on 26 October.

By Damion Radcliff in Kingston

October 2006 - 95% of children aged 4 and 5 and 60% of 3-year-olds in Jamaica participate in Early Childhood Care and Education. The Roving Caregivers Programme is concentrating on reaching kids who are under three and from the most disadvantaged and rural areas.

A dynamic woman clad in purple stands in the yard of a small house located in the hilly interior of the Mocho Mountains in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica and leads four toddlers and their parents in a ring game. Melonie Chambers chose the rings because they improve motor coordination and teach the children about their body parts. As the children play, she encourages them to use common courtesies like “thank you” and “sorry”. The children’s laughter and cheers ring through the air.

“For now, the ring game is a way to use up the children’s energy. When they are older they will be able to participate even more” Melonie explains to the parents. “Playing is the foundation of learning,” she adds.

Melonie is a “Rover” with the Jamaican Roving Caregivers Programme (RCP), a community-based early childhood development programme administered by an NGO called the Rural Family Support Organization (RuFamSo).

After playing in the sun, it is time to go on the veranda of the wooden structure. Melonie and the children sing a song as they wash the dirt off of their hands. “We tried to teach the children and their parents about proper hygiene,” whispers a Rovers’ project officer who has come to the field to observe Melonie today.

Giving back to the community

Early Childhood Care and Education has a long-standing tradition in Jamaica, with 95% participation rates for four- and five-year-olds and around 60% for three-year-olds.
Rovers like Melonie, are caregivers who come from the poor, rural communities that they serve. The name “Rover” stems from the fact that they travel from home to home. Each Rover is responsible for approximately thirty families, who are visited for 30 to 45 minutes several times per week.

Early Childhood Care and Education has a long-standing tradition in Jamaica, with 95% participation rates for four- and five-year-olds and around 60% for three-year-olds. National efforts are now focusing on better access for children under three and those from the poorest families and most disadvantaged and rural areas.

RCP fits within Jamaica’s priorities. It focuses on improving the development, health and nutrition of children aged 0-3, promoting their parents’ self-esteem and child-rearing knowledge, and assisting with income-generating activities for the community. All told, 14,255 parents and 22,335 children in three rural parishes have been served since the programme began in 1992.

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© UNESCO/Gary Masters
The Jamaican Roving Caregivers Programme helps children and families in disadvantaged areas.

Melonie has been working in this particular community for a few months now and says that the growth that she has noticed in both parents and children is worth the over 50 miles she travels daily for her sessions. “The parents and children are so good, energetic and enthused,” she says. “I love being around the children, doing this kind of work is my passion.”

The lessons the parents learn are far-reaching. “Rovers go into the homes to work with infants and parents, but there is a ripple effect to other children,” says Utealia Burrell, Director of the programme.

It’s worth the challenges

It is not only the children and families who benefit, but the Rovers as well. While Rovers are all secondary school graduates, many were previously unemployed. To prepare for their role, they receive regular training and are periodically supervised in the field by project officers. They are not only paid for their work, but it also often leads to further education and even professional certification. Melonie is currently training in Early Childhood Education at HEART NTA, a national vocational institution. “We even have some parents who—once they successfully complete the programme—go on to become Rovers themselves,” says Burrell. “Having been in the programme, they understand the experiences of parents in the community.”

Evaluations carried out by UNICEF and the Bernard van Leer Foundation demonstrate that RCP is a good investment. The program has now been successfully replicated in four other Caribbean countries: Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Burrell has recently presented the programme in Africa and hopes that it can be replicated there too.

The Jamaica Roving Caregivers Programme is not without its share of challenges. “Some parents were sceptical at first, saying that the child is too young to learn,” explains Melonie. “However, after about three months with the programme these parents said their child was responding to their voices, and some could identify shapes.”

Jasanth Bell, 41, a new mother in the programme, echoes Melonie’s enthusiasm. “I enjoy being with programme. You learn to treat the children with respect and lots of love…how to tell the children mommy loves you,” she smiles. She continues, “The baby is 5 months now, so I have a long way to go.”

“Seeing the positive impact you have on a child’s life makes the distance I travel shorter,” Melonie says. “I look forward to coming to work, I don’t mind the sun…just their smiles make it worthwhile.”

This article is from the October 2006 edition of the UNESCO Courier, “Learning is child’s play”. Reproduced from the UNESCO Courier and available at at: www.unesco.org/en/courier


 

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Early Childhood links

eDiscussion 1: Early Childhood Care and Education and Early Gender Socialization

UNESCO: Early Childhood

UNICEF: Early Childhood

The State of the World's Children 2001: Early Childhood