Novak Djokovic, UNICEF National Ambassador for Serbia and the celebrated tennis champion, this week visited the “Beneath the Linden Trees” kindergarten in the village of Lesnica, 150 km west of the Belgrade capital, to raise awareness of the importance of investment in early development and early childhood learning.
During the visit, Djokovic spent time with the children, talked to their parents and caregivers, and met with local authorities.
“I’ve seen today what a unique and special place kindergarten is,” he said. “It’s a supportive space where children can learn to think creatively and work collaboratively. It’s a space where they have the freedom to be imaginative, creative and practice skills. Quality kindergarten can bring out the best in every child and set them on a good path for life. We have a collective responsibility to ensure every child has this kind of opportunity, so that they can better navigate challenges and risks throughout life and become responsible parents and citizens.”
Serbia has one of the the lowest preschool participation rates in Europe (approximately 44%, compared with 85% in EU member states). Participation of children of ethnic minorities, living in poverty or with developmental disabilities is even lower (Roma children 8%, children in the poorest families 22%, children from rural areas 29%) while existing pre-school facilities are in poor physical condition and lack programs adapted for children of different backgrounds.
“Children from the most vulnerable groups need the most support,” said UNICEF Area Representative Judita Reichenberg. “It is unacceptable that over half the children in the country are not included in any kind of early preschool program. Serbia is neither a big nor a rich country, but it is precisely for that reason that it should invest in its most precious potential, the development of human resources. There is much evidence that investment in early childhood development is the most profitable of all investments. Talents are developed at an early age. That is why we must hurry up. Childhood is now and cannot be postponed. There is no do-over.”
Through play and talk, more than forty kindergarten children showed Djokovic their kindergarten and playground, demonstrated their skills in drawing and various games, and finally played a brief tennis match at the mini-court made of recycled materials. Djokovic also talked with their parents and caregivers, who told him of the benefits their children have from attending the kindergarten.
“This is a place where both parents and grandparents are empowered and happy to see their children enjoy and thrive,” said Djokovic. “I am glad to have contributed to that. I hope that others will join me as well.”
The “Beneath the Linden Trees” kindergarten in Lesnica village was established within the cooperation in the area of early childhood development between UNICEF, Serbian Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development and CIP – Center for Interactive Pedagogy, with financial support from IKEA and a personal donation by Djokovic. The goal is to increase coverage and improve the quality of preschool education for children aged 3 to 5 in the Serbian municipalities with the lowest preschool coverage rates.
After the visit to the kindergarten, Djokovic met with UNICEF pledge donors and volunteers at the UNICEF Office and thanked them for their support to UNICEF’s work in Serbia for the benefit of children.
“Your support helps children in Serbia to have sound foundations for their future life of responsible citizens and parents… and maybe even winning a Grand Slam,” Djokovic said, addressing members of the Club of UNICEF Serbia Friends.
Pledge donors for UNICEF Serbia programs are people of good will, individuals and companies alike, who with their donations contribute to the protection and realization of child rights, improvement of living conditions and secure assistance to those who need support most.
“To be a member of the ‘Club of UNICEF Serbia Friends’ means to be a friend of children. That is our obligation and great honor,” Djokovic said.