Seetha Anand Vaidyam
There has been a spurt in the number of pre-primary schools and centres catering to the early years of children. Advertisements about creating a strong foundation, adopting modern methods that enable children to learn in a fun way, are seen everywhere. New technology, including computers, is used to teach children in the pre-primary age group. It is true that the early childhood period is precious and needs to be given the right attention. However, unnecessary use of teaching aids and technology can be confusing and stressful for children. In the guise of play-way methods, more harm than good is done.
The term kindergarten [derived from the German – kinder (children) and garten (garden)] – rightly emphasizes the fact that children of that age are like tender saplings and need to be handled with utmost care. The period between 0 to 7 years is called the formative years. Therefore education for children during these years should be conducive to their overall development and should be such that it helps develop faculties that would enable them to handle greater and more complex learning in the coming years. Instead, what we see is that these years are used to cram in more learning, under the guise of creating a strong foundation and preparing them for a competitive world. Neither is childhood cherished nor the right stimuli given for their overall development.
Learning for the sake of learning or the content of learning is not so important in these years as much as developing the faculties that aid learning. This is the time to develop the child’s senses and physical body including motor skills which will later help them grasp complex subjects. Only a stress-free environment can help a child develop completely. Moreover, children should be made to enjoy learning and not view learning as a burden or unavoidable chore.
What is a stress-free environment in early childhood? It is indeed not easy to answer this simply because our definitions of stress vary and our understanding of stress is not, if I may say, comprehensive. While some may consider dressing up a child in some fancy dress and asking him/her to go on stage very child-friendly, others may consider it as a situation that could create immense stress for the child. Sitting in front of the blackboard and learning to copy or read matter that cannot be understood, may be viewed as totally normal by some, while others may consider it as causing stress. However coming back to our question, we all know that children, by and large, have a natural inclination to know and learn. This natural inclination is the inherent ability of the child to learn. Any early educational programme that claims to be stress-free should not interfere with this natural inclination of the child. Children learn according to their capacity and readiness to learn (evident from the fact that they turn over, crawl, stand and walk only when they are ready to do so) and any attempt to pre-empt learning will prove to be detrimental to the overall growth of the child.
A good pre-primary programme would recognize the individual capacity of children and provide them the scope to blossom at their pace. A programme that allows children to do what they naturally tend to do – play (meaning free and imaginative play and not structured and instructive/guided play), sing, move, observe and imitate – would be the basis of a stress-free childhood. Children have a natural inclination to explore and do rather than to think or to follow instructions. Thinking as an independent faculty comes later, doing as a spontaneous activity is what children of the pre-primary age group are equipped with. A pre-primary programme needs to recognize this and should not introduce early intellectualization. This is also crucial to build a future generation that is individualistic, creative and strong.
Adults around children need to have reverence for these ‘magical years’ and create a garden where children can blossom.
Frameworks for early learning
Most of us have strong opinions on what and how children should learn in the earliest years of their lives. We also have different levels of anxiety about the achievement of what are generally categorized as “developmental milestones”. One of the most significant markers of modern life is the institutionalization of spaces where children are cared for in their early years. While one may debate the origins of the modern kindergarten, it is fairly clear that the development of an industrialized (and “modernized”) society created demands on families and wage earners that forced the creation of spaces to take care of roles hitherto performed by family structures. The need for children to be “socialized” earlier and earlier into the adult world and all its demands placed further demands on these spaces. Those interested in the manner and direction of child development began looking at these spaces (designed essentially for nurturing and care giving) as places where learning happened, incidentally and informally – a place of learning before school, hence the term “preschool”. Approaches to early childhood education – the years between 3 and 6 – are many. Some preschools adopt a specific approach while others combine philosophies and approaches to arrive at their own formula. In India, few schools seem to adopt purely one philosophy, other than those that label themselves as Waldorf or Montessori schools, or those that are part of the Krishnamurti or Aurobindo schools of thought. Most franchise models such as Eurokids use an eclectic approach. The main differentiators tend to be the level of “free and open” learning and the amount of structure. The choice of school for both parent and teacher, therefore, depends on their own beliefs about early learning – and what they think is the best balance of regulation and freedom for a child.
The author is a kindergarten consultant, trainer and remedial therapist. She can be reached at [email protected].