First Steps: A Brief History of the Step by Step Program
By Sarah Klaus & Liana Ghent
In 1994, the Open Society Foundations launched the Step by Step Program, an early childhood education reform initiative in 15 countries in Central Europe and Eurasia. Twenty years later, Step by Step has developed into the International Step by Step Association, a network of NGOs and individuals working together to improve the lives of young children and families through a vibrant learning community active in national and regional reform projects.
In 1993, vast changes were sweeping across Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. At the time, early childhood education systems in these regions were in decline due to the transition from state control to market economies. For instance, in the mid-’90s in Kazakhstan, only one in ten children attended preschool education.
In recognition of the inordinate influence early childhood has on our societies, the Open Society Foundations’ chair and founder George Soros invested over $100 million into early childhood education in the region.
The Step by Step Program was established to introduce child-centered and family-based approaches to early education through a series of pilot programs in government kindergartens.
In September 1994, 15 countries across Central Europe and Eurasia started to implement Step by Step’s learn-through-play program, offering children and parents child-centered learning environments. Enthusiasm for the program from parents, educators, and government officials ensured formal approval of the methodology by respective governments.
In the ensuing years, the program expanded to serve children from birth through the first four grades of primary school, gaining formal ministry approval in almost all of the 29 participating countries. The program now reaches millions of children in substantial percentages of preschools and schools across the region.
In October 1998, a founding coalition of Step by Step NGOs voted to establish the International Step by Step Association (ISSA), a formal, regional network that would support the national Step by Step NGOs, and later other organizations, while also providing a voice for professionals promoting progressive approaches to early childhood education.
Since its establishment ISSA has developed a number of pedagogical tools and guides designed for teachers and other early childhood stakeholders emphasizing inclusion, diversity, and the values required in open, democratic societies.
In Moldova, the Step by Step Program is linking with an initiative to reduce the number of children growing up in institutions. Training for teachers on inclusive education is implemented in schools receiving children who are moving out of institutions and back home with their families.
Today, ISSA enjoys an active, vibrant membership from 35 countries, as well as Friends of ISSA from more than 50 countries.
As George Soros and experts in the field describe in the video above, the Step by Step Program continues to flourish in the more than 30 countries that have implemented the program. Independent evaluations over the past 20 years have shown that Step by Step has an impact on the development of children’s democratic behaviors, ideas, and values, and provides greater help to children who enter early childhood services with less-developed academic skills.
Open Society remains an engaged partner with ISSA, and together, we have partnered with other organizations to spearhead a variety of innovative initiatives in Europe and Central Asia, including the Romani Early Years Network and the Early Years Regional Alliance.
Working in partnership with the Open Society Early Childhood Program, ISSA and national NGOs continue to promote Step by Step’s principles and values by advocating for inclusive, equitable, and high-quality early childhood services for all children.
Until December 2021, Sarah Klaus was a senior program advisor at the Open Society Foundations.
Liana Ghent is executive director of the International Step by Step Association.