Toy Libraries Support Learning by Playing for Disadvantaged Children in Bulgaria

Bulgarian legislation as recent as the Preschool and School Education Act of 2015 underlines the value of early childhood education as an important prerequisite to entering mainstream schools as well as establishing a foothold for the fundamentals of early literacy and numeracy. Already as early as the 2012-2013 school year, Bulgaria introduced mandatory two-year preschool education, and by 2014 participation topped 81 percent. Free transport to and from preschool was also within the remit of this policy that, however, is neither universally nor equally applied across Bulgaria.

Fakulteta, nestled within Sofia’s municipal boundary, is among Bulgaria’s largest Roma settlements (pop. 80,000). The Equal Opportunities Initiative (EOI), supported by REF, has been working for years to widen participation in education for families living in this underserved Sofia neighborhood.

One particular challenge to achieving inclusive, quality education for  children from Fakulteta, Filipovtsi and Hristo Botev quarters has been the city authority’s policy since 2008 that all children of compulsory preschool-age register electronically in order to enroll, due to a lack of space in these facilities. For Roma families living at or below the poverty line, internet access has been a nearly unattainable luxury, complicating if not halting the enrollment process. EOI has stepped in to eliminate this multidimensional barrier to enrollment, providing training, counseling and access for needy families, as well as facilitating Roma pupils transition from preschool to mainstream elementary and primary schools and between grades. 

To date, about 650 Roma children have profiles in the registration system and are waiting to be placed in mainstream kindergartens. 320 children age 3-6 have already been placed in kindergartens. And another 150 Roma children have been transferred to mainstream elementary schools in the 2016-2017 school year. In total, EOI transferred nearly 600 Roma children to non-segregated city schools.

But enrollment and attendance are only two dimensions of a more complex education intervention developed by the Fund. Beginning on a pilot basis in 2011, REF has scaled up a network of Toy Libraries that were established in some of Europe’s most socioeconomically deprived localities. Toy Libraries, housed in a preschool, community center or other municipal building, are an effective and relatively inexpensive way to develop children’s logic and motor skills. Stocked with quality, special educational toys (!), Toy Libraries serve the nearby community where such toys are often financially out of reach for many families. By pooling resources, and employing a dedicated Toy Librarian and facilitator, Toy Libraries are an exceptional way to invite families to “play and stay,” triggering “learning by playing” as well as strengthening the bonds between mother and child, among families and the wider community.

In addition to its facilities in Fakulteta, REF supports Toy Libraries in Berkovitsa, Nikola Kozlevo, Tsarkvitsa in Bulgaria. This July 25, colleagues from across the Roma Education Fund Toy Library Network – another 38 Toy Libraries can be found in REF’s portfolio covering Central and South Eastern Europe and the Balkans – will learn more on a study tour showcasing the outstanding work in Fakulteta and the impact that has on not only on Roma children in the neighborhood but also on wider education policies in Bulgaria.

REF recommends that more targeted measures to increase the participation of Roma children in inclusive early childhood education are needed. Efforts should concentrate in removing the main barriers (poor infrastructure and kindergarten capacity, lack of trained staff, hidden educational costs, transportation and parents’ involvement) (European Commission 2016). Kindergarten fees and lack of information on importance of early childhood development remain among the main obstacles before Roma children and their families. The lack of kindergarten capacity (in towns), lack of trained staff, the need to better cooperate with parents and NGOs are also among the educational obstacles that REF hopes to address in future.

Background

Providing access to and advocating for quality, inclusive education services has been at the core of mission of the Roma Education Fund since its establishment in 2005.  The Fund has partnered with numerous local, regional and national authorities, civil society organizations and schools to bring about life-changing impacts on disadvantaged children. Comprehensive, integrated approaches to early childhood education developed and tested by the Fund have set the stage for better educational outcomes for Roma children later in their lives, even when faced with socioeconomic and other barriers to their education. Ultimately, the Fund has lobbied national decision-makers with its recommendation that preschool and kindergarten services should be compulsory and free of charge, among others. The body of evidence developed by REF has been central to convincing national legislatures, as is the case in Bulgaria, that education is a number one priority and worthwhile tool for alleviating poverty, addressing socio-economic disadvantages and investing in the future.  REF invested EUR 676,000 in Roma education in Bulgaria in 2016, attracting another EUR 289,000 in co-funding.

For more information on this story, please contact:

Anasztazia Nagy, REF Senior Program Officer, anagy@romaeducationfund.org

Ognyan Isaev, REF Country Facilitator for Bulgaria, oisaev@romaeducationfund.org


Click here for the agenda to the workshop in Sofia on July 24-24, 2017.

Click here for in-depth information on REF Toy Libraries in Bulgaria and around the region.

Click here for a fact sheet about REF's approach to Toy Libraries in early childhood education.

REF Toy Library Network