When my daughter was five months old, we placed a wind-up toy duck in front of her. It went ‘quack, quack, quack’ and moved forward. To this day, I have never seen anyone as determined as my then five-month-old. She could not walk, or even crawl but she creeped and wriggled the floor trying to reach that duck! Nothing could stop her.
The Montessori system of education calls this horme - the unconscious and irresistible life force that drives babies to try their best to climb out of that crib or move out of your arms. Unlike adults who have to muster their will, in babies it is innate and pure as the driven snow.
Over the last decade, the early years have emerged as a crucial time in a child’s life. According to UNESCO, “early childhood care and education (ECCE) is more than preparation for primary school. It aims at the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing.”
Many educators talk about the early years as important because the child’s brain is primed for learning. This makes it a great time to teach reading, writing, and foundational skills but that’s not all. Here are three important touchstones for parents who want a purposeful early years program for their children.
When I played with my daughter when she was a toddler, she used play to establish her identity. Her doll always set the rules and my doll had to follow. Play was a way for her to have her say because outside it, we adults controlled what she ate, when she went to sleep, and her entire life.
A thoughtful early years program respects children and gives them enough time for play without teachers interrupting them constantly, telling them what to do, what materials to use, or restricting their movement. When we control a child’s thinking, we take away their ability to think for themselves.
Reshma Bhat, a Bengaluru-based parent of a 4-year-old, says that when her son began his early years programme in a Montessori, they didn’t force his separation from home but respected him as an individual. “He is fascinated with vehicles, especially cars,” says Bhat. “So when he was upset about something, he was encouraged to talk about who came to drop him, which car he came by, which cars he saw on the way, whether he would like to colour the car. I found it very perceptive that the adults in the school welcomed a child’s big emotions and helped him redirect them and learn to cope with them.”
Your garden variety of preschools typically focuses on the compulsories - reading, writing, and numeracy. Sure, they matter but a good preschool can take many leaps ahead. A few years ago, a school called The Atelier in Bengaluru brought out a beautiful coffee table book, Is it Magic That We Grow Up? It chronicles the school’s early years education projects.
In one project, preschoolers explore the human body and what happens inside it. The connections that the children make about anatomical processes and daily lives are astonishing, moving from observations to abstract thinking and even fantasy. “The human skeleton is also made of many lines,” one child observes. “I can feel a pipe running down my back,” says another. “We all keep standing without joints,” says another child. Everyday projects explore connections with current environments and past experiences. This is thinking in its highest form.
There is more to social skills than just making friends. One great way is the cross-age buddy system and this can begin as early as kindergarten.
Says Mumbai-based parent Nikita Agarwal, “In my son’s school, each senior kindergarten child is assigned a buddy, mostly a younger child from nursery. The older child has to look after the younger one, starting from the time they enter the class. The older kids help the younger kids remove their shoes, guide them during the circle time, and even hold their hands while walking down the steps. The child builds responsibility for another human and empathy too.”
“I have observed that teenage boys from my son’s school, who I wouldn’t expect to have any interest in my 2-year-old son, want to interact with him and talk to him,” she says. “Most teenage boys I see steer clear of anything emotional but in my son’s school, they want to express themselves emotionally too.”
I once came across an early years program that introduced writing in a unique way. The preschoolers first learned how to write their names. This created an immediate and personal connect with the written language. Such unforgettable learning experiences can make our kids always want to chase that wind-up duck.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist in Mumbai.