Bernard van Leer Foundation Historical Cases

We commissioned narrative case studies of several countries in which we previously had a long-term presence. Though making the transition to scale was not then an explicit aim, we wanted to see what we could learn from these experiences to inform our scale-focused partnerships today.

Aprendiendo en Casa project leader Mirna Báez with Nicole Vermonel, Juigalpa, Nicaragua. Photo: Jon Spaull / Bernard van Leer Foundation.


The period in which we worked in Nicaragua – from 1981 to 2008 – spanned two political upheavals coinciding with major shifts the country’s approach to public policy. Throughout this time we tried to build local organisations’ capacity to provide preschool services and conduct advocacy in early childhood. This happened in different ways as political circumstances changed.

During the majority of this period, the government sought to outsource early childhood provision to civil society, including Foundation partners, who were able to develop the idea of community-based preschools in line with a trend in the region. In contrast, more recent administrations have sought to scale-up services with state funding and a high degree of state control. This has increased the available resources in the sector, but made it more difficult to fully tap civil society expertise. Given that a scale-up often occurs over multiple political administrations, this story raises the question of how best to plan for and navigate our role as a foundation beyond any one election cycle.

Another lesson from this case is about the process of scale. While, in many respects, government commitment in Nicaragua has achieved scale, individuals in the story are critical of the effect on the quality of services. What could the Foundation have done (or should it do in future work) to help our partners protect the quality of services when they undertake large scale-up efforts?

I am very grateful to Ms Aura Lila Ulloa from CANTERA and Ms Luz Danelia Talavera for kindly helping Jean Friedman-Rudovsky to write this story, and to our programme officer at the time, Marc Mataheru, for his valuable guidance and recollections.

At the end, we have added some discussion questions developed from an internal analysis of the case. I hope these and the case itself trigger useful discussions about the role philanthropy can play in achieving greater impact for our youngest citizens.

Michael Feigelson, Executive Director, Bernard van Leer Foundation, March 2018


  • Period:1981-2008
  • Total Bernard van Leer Foundation investment in Nicaragua:EUR 4,127,000 / EUR 147,000/year

Photo: Jean Friedman-Rudovsky.


On a recent Tuesday morning at the Los Cumiches preschool, in a small classroom with walls the colour of mint, fifteen 5 year olds focused their attention on two drawings hanging from a white board: two pencils and two trees, of notably different girths. A middle-aged woman dressed in a white t-shirt, jeans and sparkly platform sandals, asked her students: ‘Who knows which one is thick?’ Several hands shot into the air. Three of the kids raced forward, slamming tiny pointer fingers into the corresponding images. ‘Correct!’ the teacher said, to the squeals of excitement from the students squirming in their dark blue and white uniforms. Before the teacher could get off the next prompt, two others bolted up from their miniature metal chairs. ‘Thin!’ they shouted, palms splayed onto the other two, indeed thinner, drawings. ‘Yes!’ the teacher confirmed, touching them gently on their heads as they hugged her legs and made their way back to their seats. The teacher moved back to the board, pointing to each drawing, as a chorus of high-pitched voices chanted: ‘Thick! Thin! Thick! Thin!’

Photo: Jean Friedman-Rudovsky.

Los Cumiches sits off a side street in Ciudad Sandino, a low-income municipality just outside of Nicaragua’s capital Managua. The grounds are airy and expansive: two classrooms, a covered open-air space, ageing playground equipment and a handful of offices form a ring around gardens overflowing with greens, reds and oranges. The complex was first established in 1992 by the Centre for Grassroots Communication and Education, known in Spanish as CANTERA, with funds from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. It was, and still remains, a pioneer of the nation’s communal education preschool movement: ‘a participatory space in which children can grow and share experiences’ says Aura Lila Ulloa, CANTERA’s head of community education. ‘Los Cumiches is a place where children learn the fundamentals for their development, not just in the educational sphere, but to be good human beings.’

Los Cumiches is a place where children learn the fundamentals for their development, not just in the educational sphere, but to be good human beings. Aura Lila Ulloa

Photo: Jean Friedman-Rudovsky.

That morning, Ulloa, a cheerful woman with smooth skin and a loud, infectious laugh, watched the lesson from the doorway. Across from her, outside the room’s back entrance, two women stirred a giant plastic bowl of beans and opened a large steaming bag of rice. Ulloa leaned over to me to explain that the women were mothers of kids in the school; each family takes it turn to cook a daily portion of the staples supplied by the government to Los Cumiches and serve lunch to all the students. This, she said, was part of CANTERA’s concept of community education: that family play a vital role in a child’s development and must participate in their early learning, including cooking lunch on a rotating basis.

Probably the people doing early childhood work today don’t know the root of their sector or who was responsible for it. The Bernard van Leer Foundation planted this seed. — Luz Danelia Talavera

With financing and guidance from the Bernard van Leer Foundation, Ulloa helped develop Los Cumiches and three other similar preschools during the 1990s. Ciudad Sandino became her second home. She commuted twice a week from Managua, to check on the kids, to check in with the educators, to coordinate trainings, and to meet with families. But that morning was the first time in months she’d been there, because while Los Cumiches’ facilities still belong to CANTERA, the Nicaraguan Government took over responsibility for the school’s operation in 2008 – following the election of socialist President Daniel Ortega. The government considers early childhood education as vital and necessary, and the state is now responsible for programmes and services.

Photo: Jean Friedman-Rudovsky.

The Nicaraguan state’s prioritisation of early learning, couched within a broad set of national policies through which the government aims to support the country’s most vulnerable, arguably make Nicaragua the most progressive nation in Central America when it comes to education and care for its youngest people. But few realise the central role played by the Bernard van Leer Foundation in this coming to pass – not only through its support of CANTERA, but also because of its relationship with the Ministry of Education, which dates back more than three decades. ‘Probably the people doing early childhood work today don’t know the root of their sector or who was responsible for it,’ says Luz Danelia Talavera, who was Director of Pre-school Education within the Ministry of Education during the 1980s and remains an active child advocate today. ‘The Bernard van Leer Foundation planted this seed.’ They initiated a practical, equitable and just model for early childhood education; a model that is based in the community, and does not feel institutionalised. That was their most valuable and lasting contribution. In addition to spawning replicable and scalable best practices, what the Foundation started bore other fruit: several former CANTERA staff have turned into thought leaders in the child advocacy space and were able, through key posts and positions over the last ten years, to directly impact national policies. This piece looks at how Nicaragua achieved these successes – as well as the challenges that have arisen as a result.

Photo: Jean Friedman-Rudovsky.


The roots of Nicaragua’s current early childhood development policies and practices reach back to the nation’s 1979 revolution. In July of that year, the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN, overthrew a long and brutal dictatorship led by the Somoza family. The rebels came to power with broad support among the Nicaraguan population, particularly its poor and rural majority, and the new government promised programmes and reforms aimed at benefiting those who had long been excluded. Among their stated priorities was a commitment to ensuring the health, well-being and development of the nation’s youngest. Within a month, the government had devised a new educational reform package and, for the first time in the nation’s history, long-orphaned elements of the educational sphere – such as special education and preschool – were brought under the wing of a revamped Ministry of Education.

When it came to early childhood education, the government had its work cut out: in 1979, only 9000 Nicaraguan kids between the ages of 3 and 6 were enrolled in preschool. The country’s population at the time: over 3 million. The overwhelming majority of those in preschool were from upper-class families, attending expensive private facilities staffed with highly specialised personnel who were often trained abroad. These preschools were in fact more like kindergarten, geared towards 5- and 6-year-old kids to prepare them for first grade. In the nation’s rural areas and poor urban neighbourhoods, access to early childhood development was all but non-existent.

In 1979, only 9000 Nicaraguan kids between the ages of 3 and 6 were enrolled in preschool. The country’s population at the time: over 3 million.

To address this need, the Sandinista government established two preschool options: first, ‘formal’ preschools: classrooms for 3–6 year olds that were attached to public state primary schools and staffed by formally trained teachers. Second, the creation of a sprawling network of community-run early education programmes and infant development centres, which started taking care of kids as young as a few months old. They were often housed in people’s homes, or in community spaces such as churches or recreation centres, and were staffed by what became known as ‘community educators’ – local mothers or others who may not have had much formal education, but were trained in the basics of early childhood development through workshops and seminars. Given its limited financial resources – Nicaragua was among the hemisphere’s poorest nations at the time – the new Sandinista regime sought assistance from foreign governments and international agencies who could provide financial, material and pedagogical support for these programmes.

Children and teacher at preschool CANTERA center playing game, Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua. Photo: Jon Spaull / Bernard van Leer Foundation.

The Bernard van Leer Foundation, says Luz Danelia Talavera, was one of the most important strategic partnerships to emerge. In coordination with the Ministry of Education, the Foundation established six community preschools in four of the most underserved regions. Though they were small in number, Talavera says that the Van Leer preschools were flagship programmes, from which others replicated style and practice. ‘Bernard van Leer should be credited with the conceiving and establishment of community preschools,’ Talavera told me on my first morning in Managua.

Talavera is a slight, serious woman with thick glasses and a raspy voice. She brought to that first meeting a stack of materials, including decade-old documents she had written during her work with the Foundation, while she was at the Ministry, and after the Foundation left Central America in 2008. One of those documents, a 75-page booklet with plastic spiral binding and a bright green translucent cover, breaks down every period of the Foundation’s involvement, its partners, its work and its impact. As we talked, she leafed through the typed pages of La van Leer: una Fundación que deja huellas en Nicaragua (Van Leer: A foundation that left its mark on Nicaragua). She told me it would be wrong to think that the Bernard van Leer Foundation was important only because of the money they provided over the years. She said it was the vision that was developed in coordination with the Foundation that left a lasting impact. In particular, she explained, the emphasis on learning through play, community support, and encouraging a shift in the mentality of how adults viewed children: from subjects to active agents in their own learning process.

Aprendiendo en Casa project promoter Jaro Francisco Téllez talking to Diana Martínez, 2 and a half, and mother Elizabeth Cruz, Juigalpa, Nicaragua. Photo: Jon Spaull / Benard van Leer Foundation.

The preschools were important, it appears, because of what they represented and how they carried out their programming. In the La Van Leer document, Talavera credits them with introducing a replicable model for offering relatively inexpensive, broad access to care and learning for children from birth through 6 years old, always with the participation of the family and the community. Similar programmes sprouted up all around the country throughout the 1980s, and became wildly popular.

Talavera said: ‘I remember that whenever the President and the Minister [of Education] had visits scheduled to the rural areas, the Minister would say to me: “we need to have all available information about preschools on hand, because I know I’m going to be asked about it.” The people demanded preschool because they could see the difference it made in their kids.’ By 1989, government preschool programmes, special education and infant development centres were serving just shy of 60,000 kids – and geographic coverage had expanded significantly. Preschools had been established in some of the most remote areas of the country.

By 1989, government preschool programmes, special education and infant development centres were serving just shy of 60,000 kids – and geographic coverage had expanded significantly.

Aryeyrit Elieth Velazque Espinoza with son Dorvin Ariel Velazque Espinoza, Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua. Photo: Jon Spaull / Bernard van Leer Foundation.

In addition to paving the way for more kids to access early childhood development programmes, the community education model aimed to change people’s minds about who could educate children. Community preschools were a challenge to the traditional model of thinking – that teachers ought to be highly educated professionals. The community education model operated on the principle that anyone with a love for children could be a gifted educator, through basic training and workshops. This community education model was central to Bernard van Leer policy and practice, and the Foundation was crucial in the development of a training curriculum and strategy for youth service providers to be taught best practices relating to early childhood learning, fine and gross motor skills, social development, language, and holistic practices.

This element of the community preschools, staffing from everyday people with the desire and heart to spend their days with young children, is what made the model so easily implemented and transferable – but it was also what came up against the most resistance. Both overt and internalised prejudice against low-income, uneducated adults, particularly women, was strong. Talavera remembers, as the community education model proliferated, hearing comments like: ‘nowadays, any servant with sandals on can be a preschool teacher.’

Talavera officially retired, but stays connected to the child welfare movement. ‘I’ve never quite been able to kick the habit,’ she said, referring to her obsession for working on education issues. She adds that sometimes what the Bernard van Leer Foundation helped establish is framed in a way that she doesn’t like: ‘Yes, the preschools were of benefit to the most vulnerable populations. But I don’t think that they should be known as “programmes for the benefit of the poor”. In my opinion, that devalues their true worth. This is about helping to develop better human beings.’ That essence, she said, is of great meaning to anyone, regardless of income level. ‘And that essence continues on today,’ she said.

Children during class doing a math exercise of getting into groups of three and five, at the Centro de Educación Preescolar funded by CANTERA, Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua. Photo: Jon Spaull / Bernard van Leer Foundation.


The 1980s were marked by a brutal war against the FSLN (Spanish acronym for Sandinista National Liberation Front) led by the Contras, a collection of right-wing paramilitary groups funded in part by the United States. In 1989, the fighting officially ended and general elections were called for the following year. The Sandinistas ran, but lost. Right-wing conservatives ruled Nicaragua for the next 17 years.

During this time, often referred to today as ‘the neoliberal period’, the state’s role in education – and almost every other social sector – changed dramatically. There was a process of privatisation of all the rights – healthcare, basic services, education – that had been guaranteed by the state between 1979 and 1990.

The Bernard van Leer Foundation, like many of the institutions and agencies that had worked with the Sandinista government, continued working with the Ministry of Education. But as the state was shifting responsibility to civil society, the Foundation sought opportunities to partner with Nicaraguan non-profit organisations equipped to further the advances that had been made during the previous decade, especially in the area of development for the youngest kids. CANTERA was an obvious choice. The two organisations had worked together years before, on a campaign to combat school desertion among pre-adolescents, and they had overlapping institutional missions.

Training for parents and local volunteers working with the project Aprendiendo en Casa, Juigalpa, Nicaragua. Photo: Jon Spaull / Bernard van Leer Foundation.

The ensuing partnership, which lasted until the Bernard van Leer Foundation left the region in 2008, set up four preschools in Ciudad Sandino, including Los Cumiches. The goal, says Aura Lila Ulloa, who joined CANTERA early in this partnership, was to keep alive the spirit of community education and participatory learning. The Foundation offered its expertise in progressive curricular models to help CANTERA staff learn how to teach through play and facilitate child-centred learning. It enabled continuous professional development, through workshops for teachers and connecting them to other community educators around the country. The CANTERA–Foundation preschools, like those during the Sandinista period, operated on a family-support model: parents made a nominal monthly payment, which helped to cover the electricity bills and a night-watchman for the grounds. Families took turns cooking lunches and helping with facility upkeep, and parents were required to attend workshops that sought to make home environments as conducive as possible to healthy growth for each child. Anabel Torres, CANTERA’s executive director, said that their preschools quickly became well known nationally. ‘Any primary school was eager to have students who had been at our preschools,’ Torres told me, ‘because they said they were the best students. They went into primary school already knowing the basics. Parents, too, always commented to us that their kids who had graduated from our programmes never had any struggles when they started first grade.’

Yes, the preschools were of benefit to the most vulnerable populations. But I don’t think that they should be known as “programmes for the benefit of the poor”. In my opinion, that devalues their true worth. This is about helping to develop better human beings. — Luz Danelia Talavera

Los Cumiches and the other Ciudad Sandino schools, in concert with the Bernard van Leer Foundation, also created innovative child-led projects that not only helped the kids understand their worth, but also helped others in the community re-evaluate their perception of children’s capabilities. One such example, explained Ulloa, were the children’s town halls – fun but meaningful public events through which kids shared their opinions on neighbourhood challenges and potential solutions. One popular town hall scenario was for the students put on a play called The Curious Mayor. In this presentation, one of the kids posed as the local Mayor, who goes around asking children what their lives were like and what they thought of their community. Ulloa recalled one version of this play, held in Ciudad Sandino in the 1990s, in which child after child responded to ‘the Mayor’s’ questions with an astute analysis of their home, street, or city. Then talked about built-up sewage and crumbling public parks. They discussed the lack of trash collection and street lights. They mentioned domestic violence. Ulloa says that the teachers who prepared the play never told the kids what to say – the students always came up with the dialogue on their own. ‘These had a great impact,’ said Ulloa, explaining the impression that watching a play left on one Ciudad Sandino city council member in particular. ‘This man had a totally traditional concept of children. He thought that children were important only in that they needed to have their needs provided for. He did not think that a child could be a critically thinking human being with the ability to express likes and dislikes and complex thoughts. To him, kids were objects rather than subjects.’ After seeing the play, said Ulloa, that changed. ‘He said to me afterwards: “I am a totally changed man. I am amazed by these children’s ability to express themselves and to identify their needs so clearly. This town hall was far superior than any adult town hall I’ve ever attended.”’

Training for parents and local volunteers working with the project Aprendiendo en Casa, Juigalpa, Nicaragua. Photo: Jon Spaull / Bernard van Leer Foundation.

Aside from its direct-service work, CANTERA emerged during the 1990s and 2000s as a respected leader in early childhood advocacy and policy circles. The neoliberal government’s lack of interest in children’s issues or services gave CANTERA and other NGOs the opportunity to gain outsized power. ‘NGOs proliferated during that time and were in charge of a series of programmes in the early education arena,’ Talavera told me. ‘The experience and capacities of the NGOs grew greatly during that time.’ The neoliberal government did not hold it against the people leading that charge that many had worked in the Sandinista government. ‘Our experience and skills were recognised and we formed friendly working relationships with all levels of government at that time,’ said Talavera.

The timing was also fortuitous. It was during the 1990s that the world started paying greater attention to the needs of kids and, often through the connections and advice of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, Ulloa said that CANTERA looked for strategic openings that could advance their cause on the ground in Nicaragua. For example, Nicaragua had ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Ulloa said that they scoured the Convention to identify where Nicaragua could improve and then ‘demanded the elaboration of plans and approval of child-centred public policies’. Despite the fact that the government didn’t want to provide the services themselves, Ulloa said that officials ‘gave us an opening’ to advance policies in line with international commitments and goals.

Never before had so many groups come together to discuss and attempt to come up with aligned goals relating to early childhood education and development.

‘Advocacy was always a top priority for us,’ said Ulloa. ‘Many of us came from the school of the revolution. We knew that doing direct service work wasn’t enough.’ She said she and others were distraught at the changes beginning in the 1990s, watching as the government dismantled social support systems they had worked hard for years to erect. They were left with no choice: ‘We had to continue making an impact on a macro level through political mobilisation,’ she said.

CANTERA’s executive director Torres credits the relationship with the Bernard van Leer Foundation with helping the organisation to become such a dominant player in advocacy: ‘I was always very impressed with the political commitment of the Foundation. They wanted to collaborate in something that went beyond direct service work, something that was politically powerful. This was excellent because this was always the vision of CANTERA. And so, over those 20 years, we were able to make a lot of macro-change relating to childhood. We played an important role.’

CANTERA has been part of the nation’s first official network of organisations dedicated to childhood and adolescent issues, a group that had an influential role in the drafting of every major guideline relating to early childhood development. In 1998, a national summit on child welfare and education was held, financed by the Bernard van Leer Foundation, Save the Children and UNICEF. Over 240 people from 42 non-profit organisations and government agencies attended from around the country. This summit was an unprecedented event: never before had so many groups come together to discuss and attempt to come up with aligned goals relating to early childhood education and development. The event received massive media attention and resulted in the establishment of two bodies: the National Council on Education and the Commission on Early Education. This Commission, made up of a dozen non-governmental organisations, including CANTERA, and State institutions, was instrumental in ensuring that the issues of welfare and early childhood education were kept on the government’s agenda during the period from 1990 to 2008.

Children at school during music lesson at Centro Cantera, Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua. Photo: Jon Spaull / Bernard van Leer Foundation.

CANTERA was also a leading member of several inter-institutional committees and commissions that set national strategy on education for the country’s youngest. Working locally and at the state level. CANTERA formed committees in the municipalities where they worked to coordinate with local and regional officials whose proximity to the population enabled them to have an impact. By 2004, through these bodies and others, CANTERA had a lead role in drafting Nicaragua’s Intersectional Plan on Early Education and Comprehensive Attention on Children Under the Age of Six. Within this plan was an official adoption of the community education model that the Bernard van Leer Foundation had pioneered during the Sandinista period and kept alive with CANTERA.

On my last day in Nicaragua, at the end of our interview, I asked Torres if there was anything she wanted to add. She said yes, pulling the microphone towards her: ‘When we got together with Van Leer’s representative Marc Mataheru, it wasn’t just to give a report. It wasn’t about what activities we completed, but about what could we do more of, or better. He was a motivating presence, always encouraging us to engage in advocacy work, and he helped us with defining our vision of what child development should be … Mataheru encouraged us to question ourselves about where we were and where we wanted to head – but always in the framework of collaboration and not demands. We were never told: this is what you have to do, or you cannot do this,’ said Torres. She mentions, too, the peer learning that the Foundation facilitated, enabling CANTERA staff to learn from the experiences of partners in other countries, such as Colombia and Mexico, at regional conferences.

‘Van Leer operated horizontally,’ she concluded. ‘Other funders put their attention towards how you used their money and nothing else. With van Leer, there was always another element to it. We would meet with [Mataheru] to talk together, to resolve problems … to dream together.’

Photo: Jean Friedman-Rudovsky.


The current headquarters for CANTERA sit among a row of modest one-storey buildings on a quiet side street in Managua, marked by a large, colourful mural along its outside wall. Inside, a covered front patio has picnic tables, where staff often gather to eat lunch. The reception area, just inside the building, leads to two narrow hallways in either direction, lined on both sides with tiny offices. In the summer heat, all doors are closed, and hum of old air conditioners can be heard throughout the building.

The humbleness of its facilities may be inversely proportional to the organisation’s impact on the nation as a whole. In 2007, Nicaragua did another 180-degree political turn, electing as President Daniel Ortega – who ran on a platform of reviving the Sandinista revolutionary mission. From 2007 onwards, the state once again assumed its role as a guarantor of the planning, administration, implementation and evaluation of a system of social transformation. The state rescued programmes that it created in the 1980s and started building new ones.

Children and teacher during preschool nursery playing game at Centro Cantera, Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua. Photo: Jon Spaull / Bernard van Leer Foundation.

The current government embarked on a three-pronged approach. First, they renovated the few existing government-run early learning centres, which had fallen into varying states of disarray. Second, they assumed responsibility for maintaining the hundreds of informal, community preschool programmes, such as Los Cumiches, that had sprouted up during the neoliberal period. They also continued to offer professional training to educators in universities, which in previous years had begun with the Ministry of Education and with funds from international cooperation agencies. In recent years, formal primary education positions have been granted to professional community educators in public schools.

The final prong was putting together a team to write a law that would govern all early childhood programmes and regulations, from health to education to issuing identity cards which facilitated access to state assistance programmes. The team was charged with finding relevant experiences at home and abroad that it could use to inform the guidelines and policies. Hundreds of local and regional meetings were held in town halls, and sitting with those closest to early childhood – including midwives, preschool educators, paediatricians, traditional leaders and natural healers – to hear what they thought should be included in the new law, which was passed in 2011. However, the NGO sector, which had been leading this field for the previous 20 years, was not directly consulted.

The Aprendiendo en Casa Project motivated families to be active participants in the education of their children right from the home, rather than waiting for them to learn everything through formal schooling. — Mirna Báez

CANTERA’s preschool programmes weren’t the only thing that ended up forming the basis for government policy. During the 1990s, with guidance and financial support from the Bernard van Leer Foundation, CANTERA had established another programme known as Aprendiendo en Casa, or Learning at Home. The pilot project, which lasted for three years, established a family-based curriculum disseminated through training and printed materials, that guided parents and family members on how to interact with their kids: from good hygiene practices to stimulation techniques for early learning, from the importance of play and expressions of love, to nutritional recommendations.

A soft-spoken woman named Mirna Báez Galeano led Aprendiendo en Casa. When I met with her in Managua, she explained that the heart of it ‘was the way it motivated families to be active participants in the education of their children right from the home, rather than waiting for them to learn everything through formal schooling.’ CANTERA staff led seminars for mothers and family members and distributed curricular materials: colourful, engaging, comic-strip-esque pamphlets that were easily understandable even for those who do not know how to read.

Aryeyrit Elieth Velazque Espinoza with son Dorvin Ariel Velazque Espinoza, Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua. Photo: Jon Spaull / Bernard van Leer Foundation.

Báez recalled the passion with which many of the mothers latched onto the idea. After CANTERA trained them, they ‘appropriated it and made it theirs,’ she said. ‘They liked it so much that they went from house to house with their pamphlets, talking to others. They formed their own mothers’ network to advance the work at home with kids, particularly in the areas of health and nutrition.’

Officially, Aprendiendo en Casa ended before 2000. But similar to the preschool model established through funding from the Foundation, this too was incorporated in the present-day government’s national programmes. On the day I met with Báez, she brought me copies of Aprendiendo’s original pamphlets. The booklets look like slightly aged versions of the currently ubiquitous ones by the Ministry of the Family. The modern-day version, known as Amor para los más chiquitos, also feature bright covers and comic sketches, and cover the same topics in almost the same way. The government estimates it has given out tens of millions of copies over the last decade, using it as the basis for its community health educator programme and family support model.

One afternoon, at the CANTERA offices, Ulloa smoothed her hand over the shiny cover of the law that codified the Foundation and CANTERA models. The faces of happy children, photoshopped onto a bright pink background, smiled up at her. ‘The spirit of this law is precisely what we as CANTERA had been advocating for and working on for years,’ she said. The goal was government policy ‘that’s comprehensive, and that delineates the participation of responsible parties working for the benefit of the child, policy that enables all the services that kids need to have access to and enjoy in order to be an active subject in their own lives.’ And that was on the paper in front of her.

Children studying in temporary classroom built to house the extra children attending school after the Sandinista Government made education free in 2007, Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua. Photo: Jon Spaull / Bernard van Leer Foundation.


Elba Altamirano stood in front of her class of 4 and 5 year olds, going over the alphabet. The walls of her preschool classroom, housed within the state-operated Fe y Alegría Roberto Clemente Primary School, were decorated with seasonal art projects and a chart on which her students check themselves in every day. A blue sticker meant they arrived on time; red meant they were late. As Altamirano went over the letters, noise from older kids in other areas of the school filtered in. When the kids’ attention seemed to stray, she brought them back by switching to a song exercise, followed by a drawing activity based on the letters on the board.

Altamirano is a broad, jovial woman in her 40s, who used to work at Los Cumiches. She was given a government post in this primary school four years ago. ‘The curriculum is very similar,’ she said. Other things that feel familiar: spending time getting parents actively engaged, and making sure her lessons are as participatory as possible for the kids – like the attendance and arrival chart. ‘There isn’t any major difference in the way we do things here and the way we did it there,’ she said.

Over the last ten years, there have been real shifts in the way that kids in all Nicaraguan preschools learn, based mostly on Bernard van Leer Foundation principles.

Aprendiendo en Casa project promoter Enrique Javier Sandoval Quintanilla talking to Jackson Daniel Rujer – 4 years old – in Juigalpa, Nicaragua. Photo: Jon Spaull / Bernard van Leer Foundation.

`Teachers [at government schools] complain about current approaches,’ said Dorlenes de Jesús Gómez Hernández, an educator at Los Cumiches. Not teachers like Altamirano, Gómez explained, since she was used to it. But those used to doing things differently often resisted the change, mainly because it is harder: getting kids up and engaged, leading stimulating activities, having to visit parents and lead them in workshops on how to interact with their kids. It requires from staff more time, energy and effort.

Community educators are still not valued as much as they should be. Even after more than 30 years of community education throughout the country, the (mainly) women who lead this model are still seen as second class educators — despite many of them now having the exact same level of training as the formal teachers. Many of them still feel totally discriminated against by formal teachers and sometimes by Ministry of Education officials.

Hernández Leiva and Gómez Hernández, community educators at Los Cumiches say they miss the `Van Leer’ days, when they got frequent workshops that nurtured their work.

Photo: Jean Friedman-Rudovsky.

In the development of government services, there is a clear intention for the universalization of the preschool. All 153 municipalities in Nicaragua have at least one formal preschool along with several community educator preschools. But in a nation with approximately one million children under the age of 6, there is a wide gap between the number of kids needing to be covered and those who have access to preschool. Most children in the country are not attending because there simply are not enough facilities open and operating.

Herein lies the rub for Nicaragua. ‘Years ago,’ Ulloa told me on our last morning together, ‘our struggle was to make sure that the government took responsibility for the issue of children’s rights, and all its accompanying services. That’s what the Convention on the Rights of the Child says: that governments and the state play this role. This is exactly what we fought for; it’s why we did all that lobbying work, so that the state would take over.’ Achieving this ambition has, however, ended up highlighting the challenges that face developing countries as they try to scale up.

About the author

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is an award-winning freelance investigative journalist based in Philadelphia. She is a Vice Magazine contributing editor and has been published in The New York Times, Time Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and Bloomberg Businessweek, among others. From 2006 to 2015, she was a foreign correspondent whose work primarily focused on women’s rights, and economic and environmental justice. She is currently the director of the Philadelphia Solutions Journalism Collaborative, a news initiative among local media to produce high-impact reporting on issues of critical importance.
Learning Lessons

We commissioned these historical studies in part to identify questions we should ask ourselves as we plan future work. Learning questions raised for us by this story include:

  • How can we best take advantage of historical moments in a country to accelerate progress towards scale? How does this factor into our own decision making?
  • How to diversify our partnerships and our approaches (for example, advocacy versus field projects) to ensure continuity throughout inevitable political changes in government?
  • When making plans for scale, is it always desirable to aim for universalisation? Or is it better – from a quality standpoint – to advocate for a more targeted approach to specific populations of children and families?

Copyright © Bernard van Leer Foundation. All rights reserved.