Early childhood education: The great equalizer

Garifuna girls from NicaraguaRapid footsteps and childlike giggles floated into my room as I woke up. It was September 2009 when I was living with and learning from the Garifuna people of Orinoco, Nicaragua. Five little girls flooded my host mom’s kitchen as she cooked breakfast and prepared for work. There was not much to do in this small, fishing community; thus our kitchen became the nucleus of fun for girls who could not yet enter school. Daily, their fathers and the men of the town went out fishing while women cooked, created crafts, and maintained the homes. We sang together, we jumped rope and we played games. The kitchen was our own little school house.

Five years later, the memory of my mornings in Orinoco bring me both pleasure and regret. Though I loved our morning routine, I regret the time wasted–time spent playing games that could have been prime instructional time. I could have taught them their ABC’s or we could have reviewed numbers in English and Spanish; yet we did neither. We just played.

As the evidence grows on income inequality and evening the proverbial “playing field” for ALL students, early childhood education is frequently cited as the single greatest investment in a poor child’s life. Children raised in resource poor environments need early literacy to help them learn as well as their affluent peers and continue on to college. With early education interventions, these children are able to pull themselves and their families out of poverty. Without it, their socio-economic class remains unchanged.

For select families across the US, early childhood education is becoming more affordable and readily available to children who need it the most. For example, in my hometown of Spartanburg, two school districts provide free 3K and 4K for students who qualify. Recently, newly elected New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced free 4K for ALL children in New York City. While their is a great need for early literacy in the US, the need is even greater in Nicaragua. According to Save the Children, “One-third of all Nicaraguan children never enroll in elementary school, fail to attend, or drop out before reaching the sixth grade.” For the girls I met in Nicaragua, access to education or the lack thereof clearly delineates their fates.

I can still see these girls’ smiles as we played Miss Mary Mack. Now, I  only hope that the games they play are not from kitchens or backyards but within the walls of the school house.

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