Six children run through the gym at the daycare center in Gelsenkirchen in western Germany. Hermine and Thalia climb up a ramp to the wall of bars, quickly slide back down and take a run-up for the next round.
Other children take turns crawling and balancing under and over taut ropes, practicing jumping, throwing balls, or winding their way through a course of red poles on a skateboard. Deep in concentration, they practice until they master the challenge.
"Hey lovelies, can you gather around please?" calls out social worker and educational supervisor Farzana Mecklenbrauck, "How did you like it?" "Good! Good! Good!" the children say.
The gym is just one of many offerings for the five-year-olds who will be starting school next year.
A multifaceted problem
Mecklenbrauck is providing intensive support for children as part of the "Securing the Future Early" (ZUSi) pilot project, which includes seven daycare centers in the district of Ückendorf.
Children here are not just hampered by a lack of money, but also cultural barriers such as poor German language skills, social or health impairments, and educational poverty.
Gelsenkirchen, like other cities in the Ruhr region, has been battling particularly high levels of child poverty for years. At the end of 2021, 40% of children under 15 lived in families on social welfare. The region has been undergoing economic restructuring as Germany transitions away from coal power, and many people in this area used to work in the mining industry. A particularly large number of families here are now affected by poverty.
About seven in 10 children (up to age nine) live in families with an immigrant background. They are particularly at risk of poverty, as are single parents and families with three or more children.
At the start of the ZUSi project, children from poorer families had developed only 50% of the skills appropriate for their age group.
Children from all families, poor or not, benefit from the educational support on offer. They can visit a farm, walk through the forest with the forester, learn to paint with an artist, try out instruments at the music school in the daycare center or do experiments with electricity and magnetism, and learn about volcanoes. Theater days and a bicycle project are also planned.
The preschoolers also get to visit the nearby elementary school to help ease their anxieties and break down barriers. Resilience lessons are held regularly to encourage them to become aware of their feelings and to talk about them.
"I can tell when I'm angry all over my body from top to bottom," one boy said. The children learn to resolve conflicts and build on their successes. Those who don't dare try out the climbing wall at first can practice every week.
In the daycare center, Hermine has developed her artistic talent; her painting now hangs in a small exhibition. Younes built a hand drum and loves to dance. When he talks about it, he does a few steps on the spot. Thalia says she loves to climb and paint.
Supporting the transition to elementary school
Farzana Mecklenbrauck helps to refer children to clubs with suitable programs and to bring providers to the daycare center. She says that the ZUSi program has been very well received by parents.
Mothers have cried with emotion at the new opportunities for their children. "I haven't heard anything so positive in such a long time," confirms Jessica Stettinus from the school social service in Gelsenkirchen.
Zahia Bourezg is originally from Algeria and her husband came to Germany from Iraq many years ago.
Her eldest daughter Lina is also taking part in the ZUSi project. She started as a four-year-old in the daycare center and is now in second grade. The support helped Lina to transition from daycare to elementary school.
Bourezg's younger daughter Lara is taking part in the ZUSi activities at the daycare center: "She always comes home very happy."
The whole family borrows multilingual books ("We learn together!") and there are games to try out in the daycare media room.
Janet Janssen welcomes the fact that her daughter Hermine is being supported to explore her artistic talents. She also wanted to take her to the public library, "but with my work, it wasn't easy." The ZUSi children went there together.
Parents can also read reports about these activities in the new ZUSi app, where they can make new contacts themselves. The app is available in 40 languages, says Sebastian Gerlach, coordinator of the project "Securing the Future Early" in Gelsenkirchen. The app is due to be extended to daycare centers throughout the city.
According to the statistics, if 10 children play on a playground in wealthy, industrialized Germany, two of them are affected by or at risk of poverty. That's one in five children nationwide, and in districts such as Ückendorf it is more than twice that.
This does not mean that these children have to live on the streets or work to survive, as is the case in very poor countries, says poverty expert Irina Volf from the Frankfurt-based Institute for Social Work and Social Education (ISS), which is providing academic support for the ZUSi project.
However, these children have fewer chances of developing the skills appropriate for their age group.
Some large families with low incomes have problems filling their children's lunchboxes every day. That's why the daycare center offers all children a healthy breakfast every morning for just 50 cents. Part of the ZUSi project involves training all educational staff in daycare centers and schools in poverty sensitivity so that everyone is aware what problems poorer families face.
This has led to changes in the day-to-day life of the daycare centers.
For example, if a child has a birthday, parents don't bring along elaborate cakes. Instead, the kindergarten teachers bake together with the children.
Every child celebrates their birthday the same way, and it makes life easier for all the parents.
Children also grow quickly, but not all parents can afford to constantly replace shoes or clothes. A weatherproof closet was purchased and placed outside the daycare in a location that is protected from view. Now parents can deposit clothes that no longer fit their child and others can take out what they need for their children.
Skilled workers urgently needed
Children from poor families have fewer educational opportunities than children from wealthy families. It is much easier for the latter to take piano or ballet lessons, attend sports clubs and art schools, or go on excursions and vacations.
The lack of opportunities for poorer children are not only unfair, but also short-sighted.
The RAG Foundation supports many projects in the former mining region of the Ruhr, including the model project "Securing the Future Early" since 2019.
Together with two follow-up projects, around €4.5 million ($4.4 million) have been pledged so far, the foundation told DW.
"By supporting children and young people with fewer opportunities, we are assuming social responsibility. Nevertheless, in the end, it's always about not letting any talent go untapped," explains RAG Foundation board member Bärbel Bergerhoff-Wodopia.
"The earlier we start to guide children and young people on a successful educational path, the better," she added. "This way, we ensure educational equity today and the skilled workers that the economy will urgently need tomorrow."
The project is to be extended to daycare centers in three neighboring cities.
What comes after the pilot project?
The Gelsenkirchen project "Securing the Future Early" will end in May, though second-graders in three elementary schools will be accompanied until the end of fourth grade.
And yet the project has already proved successful, says Irina Volf. The earlier children can come to the daycare center and the more hours they are looked after there, the more they can develop their skills.
The findings are to be introduced on a permanent basis in daycare centers in Gelsenkirchen, says coordinator Sebastian Gerlach. However, educational support positions will no longer be financed, because there is already a heavy workload and a shortage of skilled workers in daycare centers.
The ZUSi children Hermine, Thalia, and Younes are looking forward to school.
Thalia's mother, Sarah Chaiyo, says equal opportunities are especially important in a district like Gelsenkirchen-Ückendorf: "The project should definitely be continued."
She says her family is not affected by poverty, but she knows how hard it is for others. Everything is getting more and more expensive: "That turns my stomach," she adds.
Volf, meanwhile, believes that those in power have a duty to combat child poverty and its consequences: "It's a shame that Germany is neglecting so many talented people."
This article was originally written in German.
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