It is not all play at a Playschool. Progressive education, montessori system, multiple intelligence, playway method, holistic learning - the terminology is bound to boggle the mind, especially when you consider that all this jargon is used in the context of preschool education.
Gone are the days when a playschool was a waiting room for children not yet age-eligible for regular school admissions. Extensive research and the resulting astonishing findings in the field of early education have shown how crucial the years between 3 and 6 years are for shaping the neurological structure of the brain. This not only makes the choice of a competent preschool critical, but also increases the significance of the preschool curriculum.
If preschool is your child's first point of independent contact with adults and children outside her familiar circle of family and friends, it is also a rite of passage for Mum and Dad letting go their baby for the first time ever. Given this, it is not surprising that parents are more concerned with establishing a comfort level with instructors and caregivers in the preschool, than with delving into the intricacies of the teaching methodology followed.
But teaching methodology or curriculum is serious business even in a playschool. Specialised systems of teaching such as Montessori have formed the basis for many a preschool for decades. In recent times, newer systems and philosophies like the Playway method and multiple intelligence mapping have also been incorporated into the curriculum for children up to 6 years.
An educational approach developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. Montessori education is characterised by an emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child's natural psychological development. This approach is scientifically designed, guiding children systematically through series of activities, gradually increasing in complexity.
Although a range of practices exists under the name "Montessori", four key areas must be covered - practical life, sense organs, language and maths skills. A key characteristic of Montessori education is that students move from concrete concepts to abstract ones, where students learn concepts from working with materials, rather than by direct instruction. For eg., learning how to trace an alphabet and recognising its physical structure before moving on to understanding the sound associated with it.
In India, a few preschools are purely Montessori while most others have included certain Montessori methods into their curriculum. This is usually in the form of a Montessori lab where students are allotted a block of work time, working with specialised educational materials developed by Montessori and her collaborators.
But either way, if the school claims to be working on the Montessori system in part or whole, they must have teachers trained in the methodology from a certified Montessori institute.
Moreover, once you visit the premises, the layout will speak for itself as Montessori demands construction in proportion to the child and his/her needs in an arrangement that facilitates movement and activity.
The playway method is a more spontaneous one, which demands creativity from both the teacher and the child. Unlike Montessori, Playway may not be a structured and documented system but more an adaptation of best practices from across the world, with a greater emphasis on physical activities such as role-play, music and movement, art and crafts, stories.
At the age of 2 to 3 years, children are still learning how to communicate and play becomes their preferred medium of expression. But this can happen only if play is capitalized in a proper manner making it purposeful and directed.
Once again, it comes down to the importance of trained instructors who have clearly understood the purpose of the method and are competent enough to translate it to the student. The Nursery Teacher's Training programmes offered by most institutes in India are generally based on the Playway method. This methodology is gaining in popularity with many pre-schools in the country who have used it entirely by itself or in combination with other systems.
A theory proposed by Howard Gardner in 1983, that differentiates intelligence and learning into various specific (primarily sensory) modalities, rather thanseeing it as a single general ability. Simply put - different children have different learning styles. The theory proposes that eight abilities govern the learning process in any individual, especially children - spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.
According to this theory, the purpose of schooling should be to develop intelligences and to help children reach learning goals by methods that are appropriate to their learning styles. This is a welcome departure from traditional systems that marked academic excellence only in terms of logical and linguistic abilities (reading, writing and math). Though a relatively new model, several schools have adopted it and plan their curriculum to ensure the same topic is covered in different ways.
Preschools in India have also adopted best practices of other teaching philosophies such as those of Waldorf Steiner and John Dewey, the Reggio Emilia approach etc. Another well recognized approach that has proved effective is the integral education system, instituted by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. This system lays emphasis on five principal aspects corresponding to the five principal activities of the human being; the physical, the vital, the mental, the psychic and the spiritual.
With new developments in the field of child psychology and early education, there is bound to be continuous innovation and introduction of new practices in preschool teaching methodologies as well.
Which method to choose?
The objective of these early years of learning is to produce a child who is beginning to feel confident about himself, enjoys creative tasks, can take simple decisions easily and enjoys the process of learning. The curriculum must therefore give importance to every aspect of development.
Each method discussed above has enough merits to be able to achieve these objectives, if implemented competently, in part or whole. There may be arguments against Montessori's seemingly rigid structure but a trained instructor, who understands the logic of the system well, can innovate even within the given guidelines. The problem arises when a school adopts the name of a well-known methodology without proper training and blindly follows the structure. The result would be a repetitive and aimless process that does not challenge either the instructor or the student.
When choosing a pre-school, parents must find out what they can about the implementation of the teaching system rather than just knowing which system is followed. It does not matter if it is one system or a combination of many, as long as the instructors are well trained and the methods are implemented as intended. A proper and thoughtful approach to learning will show itself in basic factors such as the layout of class areas, equipment used, hand-on activities and the balance of teacher driven vis-à-vis child driven activities. The key is maintaining the ideal balance of creativity, flexibility and structure that makes learning joyful for the child.