Changing times for tiny tots

Ardra Balachandran and Deepti Bharthur

“Surely, education has no meaning unless it helps you to understand the vast expanse of life with all its subtleties; with its extraordinary beauty, its sorrows and its joys.” Jiddu Krishnamurti

The image of a proud little boy or girl taking off for school, excited to distraction is maybe something that only plays out on a Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan advertisement. The Tabula Rasa approach to education doesn’t do for today’s generation of parents who will do anything to make sure their children get what they see as a much-needed edge to succeed in life.

cover-story-1 With the spread of the corporate franchise preschools in urban India over the past decade, the notion of preprimary education in India has been fundamentally revamped. A fully developed curriculum, lesson plans, organized activity are all factored into the system, gearing towards preparing the child with a sound cognitive base for school.

‘Learning Readiness’ is the first of the three laws of learning developed by the renowned American educational psychologist Edward Thorndike. It is a simplistic concept that ‘individuals learn best when they are physically, mentally and emotionally ready to learn, and they do not learn well if they see no reason for learning.’ Although this concept can be applied to human learning at any stage, it is particularly significant for the 0-7 age group because any experience during this impressionable age has a long-term effect.

Manju Shetty, an education consultant at Chennai says that if we initiate learning before children are ready, they may learn and perform. But by the time they come to class four when fractions are introduced, they will be saturated and lethargic. In other words, they become “schooled” in performing certain operations but do not truly “learn” in the deeper sense of the term.

The late Prof. N Sankaran Nayar, eminent educationist and psychologist who contributed to the first authoritative nursery syllabus in Kerala back in 1963, says in his book The Concept and Practice of Preschool Education that readiness has two components – maturation and experience. While the former refers to the physical aspect (the child’s hand becoming strong enough to use a pencil), the latter refers to a background of related experiences. It is in providing the child with more experiences that preprimary education can contribute in ‘readying’ them for formal learning at primary school. Maturation, on the other, hand must progress at its own pace and cannot be forced.

Preprimary education has two phases in today’s Indian context – playschool and nursery (also known as kindergarten). Two years of kindergarten (German, means children’s garden) has been in vogue for some time now and it has almost become the first phase of compulsory education these days. While the notion of preschool has been around for over three decades in the country its apparent importance has increased in the recent years. Understandably, there is some confusion between the terms “preschool” and “playschool” because one refers to a phase of education while the other refers to the approach taken within education.

The huge increase in advertising for preschools and nurseries only leads to further confusion: are these spaces where children get together to play and be cared for in the absence of parents, or are they spaces where they are “readied” for formal school? Where the early preschools, slightly upgraded day care centres, were all about comfort and care, the newer ones focus on social and intellectual development – and therefore evince a greater interest in “method”.

cover-story-2 Mr. J Joseph, Managing Director of Sydney Montessori Schools based in Kerala, says, “I wanted to change the system of leaving children to under qualified people. Ayahs with minimal educational qualification are not equipped with the resources to provide a child during this important phase.”

Joseph started Sydney with one student in a small town called Kottayam. The main challenge he faced was parents’ hesitation to pay fees of over a thousand rupees per month, especially since an older institution in the neighbourhood, run by nuns, was charging only a quarter of it. “We don’t mind spending lakhs on making our children engineers and doctors, but what is the point if we have ignored the most important phase of their lives?” he asks.

But word of mouth spread faster than he expected and within no time, Sydney became famous for the difference it was making. It now has six branches in three districts in central Kerala.

However, Joseph himself clarifies that although the school focuses on all round development of the child, character formation and finding their true potential, it does not completely follow the Montessori system as the name suggests. “There isn’t the right kind of environment for that in Kerala. It will be useful only if the child can carry on with it during primary education and upwards,” he says.

It is known that Montessori schools differ in their interpretation and practical application across the world because of the ambiguity in Maria Montessori’s work in describing the method itself; she focused more on the effects of the method.

Take Anuradha Rao’s case, for instance. With the experience of running the Naval Wives Welfare Association playschool in Visakhapatanam, she started one at her house in Hyderabad after her husband’s retirement. She wanted to take it to the next level and attended a Montessori training program at Basheerbagh, Hyderabad. “The classes went fine, but during a two week teaching practice session at a school, I saw multiple instances where the inner urges of children were being disregarded. The original Montessori style is about letting the child be. I couldn’t agree and so I quit.”

The Waldorf method developed by the Australian philosopher Rudolph Steiner has also gained niche popularity in Indian schools recently. Based on a more humanistic pedagogy, the Waldorf style is different from mainstream teaching methods. Manju, who also has 13 years of experience as a kindergarten teacher at Shloka Waldorf School in Hyderabad says, “We use the playway method. Our play materials and even the classroom ambience is the same in all countries. But we follow what is called the rhythm of the child – which starts with their heartbeat,” she says.

At Euro Kids, a leading preschool chain in India, a combination of playway method and Montessori style is put to use. Asha Swaminathan, Academic Coordinator for the Kerala territory, says: “Our philosophy is based on this idiom – I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand. So instead of just saying A for Apple, we bring an apple to the class, make them smell, touch, peel, cut and eat. All senses are at work that way.”

However, preschool institutions are not all about fun and play. Teachers often encounter challenges while working with children from dysfunctional, unhappy homes or with a history of abuse. Manju speaks of a senior kindergarten student in her charge who was grappling with an incident of attempted molestation at a park. “Fortunately, nothing happened. But the child became so clamped. I requested the parents to give her one more year in kindergarten. They are so grateful for that one year now. She has forgotten it (the episode) completely.”

Joseph remembers having a four year old who was so tactfully sexually abused by her uncle that she developed a sexual interest. The parents had not communicated this, but her behaviour with older boys upped the teachers’ antennae. The parents, however, later confessed that they sent her to Sydney just so that she could get over it.

Parents are a problem!
Anuradha, who runs a non formal playschool (just three hours everyday), says she has had parents who were worried about their children not knowing the alphabet and numbers 1-20 while other kids did.

Manju confesses that the biggest challenge in her career has been dealing with parents, not children. “They should understand that children are like our five fingers, all are different but each one is indispensable. There is no point in comparing them.” But she herself says that ‘the parents who trouble you a lot are the genuine ones.’ That is precisely why Waldorf gives parents the opportunity to participate in the class for a day and watch their kid learn.

Euro Kids arranges a parent orientation program at the outset itself to avoid such ‘a conflict of interest.’ “We make it clear to parents what we will be doing and what the expectations from them are. They are equal contributors in their child’s development,” says Asha.

Joseph and his wife Jasmine have had a tough time dealing with indifferent parents. The attitude is that ‘we pay you and you are supposed to do this.’ There have been cases when the kids are bathed and sent home and they return the next morning without even brushing. Some parents even touch teachers the wrong way while handing over the child. Some come drunk to school to drop children. And most of them are completely averse to feedback as well.

But there are also parents like Jyothi Rao, whose daughter has gone to Anuradha’s school as well as Euro Kids in Kukatpally, Hyderabad. She can list the learning of her child in each place with the changes in her behaviour; such is the level of involvement!

An important factor to keep in mind here is that the nursery school is not a substitute but an extension of the home. Neither home nor school can take care of all needs and they cannot function in isolation as well. A coordinated approach working at an individual plane (parent visiting school and teacher visiting home) and a collective plane (parent teacher meetings to discuss common problems) is required. Of course, basic manners are not negotiable.

Teachers don’t just teach…
In many of these institutions, teachers have the freedom and responsibility to choose the school activities based on children’s interest and pace. They ‘prepare an environment’, as Maria Montessori puts it, where children do not have to be forced with either the carrot or the stick to learn.

Equating teaching with discipline gets a strict negative nod. Regimentation is a serious hazard to mental and emotional health of children at this age; what they need is a free permissive atmosphere where free activity is not only tolerated but encouraged. As Swami Vivekananda ardently advocates, teachers should help them manifest the perfection they already have in them.

The Waldorf system calls their teachers ‘facilitators.’ “We talk very little unlike in other schools. If a child asks why the sky is blue, we don’t give a readymade answer. We ask back, ah, why is it blue? This will make him observe and experience by himself that the sky changes colour as the day progresses,” Manju explains.

At Sydney, teachers are given special training to understand that it is a re-rooting process for children, their first exposure to a world outside home, which calls for a lot of care. One teacher is assigned to each kid during the time of joining and it is her duty to see that the child is comfortable being away from parents and home.

Euro Kids employs a ‘reporting and inspection system’ to deal with the problem of widespread franchisees. Each school has to call the territory Academic Coordinator every day and give a report. Additionally, monthly inspections are arranged. Coordinators across the country meet once in four months to discuss feedback from teachers across the board and to amend the curriculum accordingly.

Getting the right applicants is a challenge faced by all these schools. Most schools consider good English communication skills and graduation a must and mothers are preferred. But an attitude problem among educated people in teaching at preprimary level is the biggest deterrent. ‘I did not do my post graduation to teach at a nursery’ is a statement that is often heard. What many teachers do not realize is that this is the place where he or she can make maximum difference to a child’s life.

Of course, the attitude problem has a lot to do with the poor salary scale of playschool and kindergarten teachers. At Sydney, every teacher gets a basic salary of Rs.5000 plus performance based bonus. Joseph says he knows many schools that are run with teachers who have just passed plus two and have undergone nursery teaching training and are paid as low as Rs.1000. Sister Nirmal, Principal of St. Lukes Nursery School, Gandhinagar says that all three teachers in her school have only completed these courses.

While enhanced pay scales will go a long way in attracting a better talent pool, a genuine interest in teaching young children is important for those who wish to make a career in it. Asha once had a post graduate who had come for the post of Counsellor, but the vacancy was for teaching. “She was averse to the idea, but I requested her to be with us for a month and see how things go. She loves her job today.” If that’s not enough, she vouches for it herself – “I have 100% job satisfaction.”

The early years of a child’s life must be handled with care and consideration – in terms of providing the right physical and emotional environment, and in terms of having the right kind of people around the child. While a warm and nurturing home may be the best place for a child to take early lessons for life, the space provided by a preschool can offer a valuable addition to those lessons—through peer interaction and play, which is after all, a child’s work.

Parent’s view

My son is four years old now and goes to a preschool that both he and I are very happy with. A couple of years ago when my son turned two I started thinking about a school to send him to. Actually I was forced to think about the kind of school I wanted my son to go to. At the time, a couple I know who have a child six months younger than my own was actively looking for a school for their daughter. I said to myself, wow, if at 18 months they want their child to go to school then at 24 months my son certainly can’t be sitting at home! Why hadn’t I thought of him going to school until then? Was I not being a responsible parent? I mean, didn’t I start school when I was four? Only then did I notice the advertisements of preschools along the route I take to work. And there were at least 20 schools staring down at me. Each claimed to have a USP. One claimed to be a preschool and a day care centre so I needn’t worry about my child when I was away at work. Another claimed that they would guide my child into becoming a smart kid so that he succeeded wherever he went. A third said they were ‘the modern’ preschool. A fourth even offered me an early bird discount! How was I to choose? I went to a couple of these schools. The schools welcomed me, showed me around, and patiently answered my questions. I thought they were nice schools but I wasn’t really impressed. What was I looking for?

Well, for starters I wanted a school that wasn’t too far from home. At his age I didn’t want my son traveling 20 kilometers to school everyday!
I wanted a school that was an extension of his home.
A school that was as protective of him as I was.
A school that cared and looked after his needs as I did.
A school that assigned not more than 15 kids to a teacher.
A school that had patient, sensitive and understanding teachers.
A school that did not insist on learning the alphabet or numbers at age three (when my son would eventually start going to school.)
A school that did not have exams at the end of the year that he would have to sit through to move to the next class.
A school that did not prescribe a uniform.
A school that had a nice playground and airy classrooms.
A school that my son would be happy and eager to go to everyday.

While the schools I surveyed had some of the factors I was looking for none had them all. After a few tense months however I found just the school I wanted to send my son to. This is his second year at this school and I am content. Well at least for now… until I begin the search all over again for a primary school.


Being a preschool teacher

Preschool is essentially a place of training, where children learn skills that they will need when they begin school. Handling children at this level requires knowledge, aptitude and skill – for it entails developing a range of skill sets in children, from toilet training to motor skills, from understanding of basic concepts that one needs to negotiate the immediate environment to social skills, language skills like listening and speaking, an ability to pay attention for specified periods of time, an ability to reason, and more. This is a huge responsibility – and in order to help children develop all of this successfully, the preschool teacher needs to be remarkably skilled herself.

What are the qualities that the preschool teacher should have? One group of schools calls its preschool teachers “mother teachers”: they believe that, first and foremost, the teacher must have a deep love for and a willingness to engage with children. I can’t but agree with them – untiring devotion and patience with children, the willingness to play, sing, dance or otherwise engage with them, and work with their hands and get them dirty, the ability to smile joyfully and take pride in children and their work, no matter how “imperfect” – these are pre-requisites.

The teacher must also have a working knowledge of child development, both physical and psychological. Knowing the developmental milestones is important in organizing activities that help train rather than strain the child, particularly where motor skills are concerned. What, for example, is the right age to get a child to use a pencil? How should a left-handed child be trained to write? A preschool teacher must be aware of such matters. Knowing the developmental milestones can be crucial in spotting nascent disabilities as well.

Knowledge of at least two local languages (and English where necessary), with a good grammatical base and a large vocabulary of words in each is essential. The words that a child will need in her day to day life, from body parts to things in the environment to action words – all these the teacher must be familiar with. She must also be resourceful, observant and agile, knowing how to establish and maintain discipline. She must pay attention to the diet of the child, ensuring that it is nutritious.

Last but not least, an ability to analyze and discuss the child’s issues with the parents is also important.


Going with the flow…

While the popular opinion today is that preschool is a necessary step in children’s education, there are those who think otherwise. Many educationists have demanded that children be left to themselves and allowed to grow in their own natural way like plants. The 18th century writer Jean Jacquez Rousseau wrote his fiction work Emile to show sophisticated European society of that era, an alternative pattern of education. His philosophy was naturalistic and in terms of methodology, he was a great advocate of self teaching.

When is a child ready for preschool?

While most parents enroll children in preschool when they turn two, age is not always the most definitive indicator to deem them ready. If a child is not properly toilet trained, has not learned to speak just yet, and has difficulty with engaging his/her time in any kind of activity for short durations of time (10 minutes), pushing them into preschool without preparing them for it not only causes stress for the child, but also makes it difficult for him/her to adjust to a new setting.

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Ardra has a Masters in Communication from the SN School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad. She is a freelance writer and avid blogger. She can be reached at
Deepti has a Masters in Communication from the SN School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad. She can be reached at

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