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Preschools: The seeds of time

March 31, 2013

Macbeth is told by a friend, “You can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me …”

The symbolic use of the word ‘seed’ by William Shakespeare is embedded with several meanings. The quality of seeds is important but crops do not solely rely on it. Water supply, weather conditions and manure also play a role in obtaining a handsome harvest. Seeds symbolise children. We need to provide them with favourable conditions to grow.

Parents want to provide the best they can for their children. In order to give them a fine start they look for the best Montessori school in town. And in doing so they accede to pay illogically hefty fees. Some parents feel social pressure when the child’s cousins and other children in their neighbourhood are already going to a preschool. But most parents who seek admissions for their children in such institutions are rather ignorant of the physiological, social, emotional and academic needs of the little ones.

Karachi has numerous preschools; some of them claim to have foreign affiliations and promise to provide international standards. Others enounce that after passing out from their institution the child will get admission in the desired elite school.

In fact, only a couple of institutions in the city have an educational philosophy. Most of the preschools have only one Montessori directress and the rest of the teachers are just girls who hardly possess a Higher School Certificate. The school administration has nothing to do with education as they are there only to mint money.

These preschools do not hold a single standard procedure of admission. There is an admission test for the young buds along with their parents’ interview. To exhibit their so-called standards, they have an inflexible policy regarding the child’s age. Most of the schools open up admissions for 2.5-year-old children. A well-known Montessori school admits only 18 months old children while another admits children at the age of 2.3 years. But only those whose mothers registered with them when they were seven months pregnant are lucky to get into the school.

It is believed that early schooling will help children win the race in today’s competitive world. Parents do not realise that it can also have long-lasting effects on the future of their family. To decide the right age to start preschool, we should understand the needs of the child in the following domains of development.

Motor skill development Motor skills are subdivided into two types; gross motor skills and fine motor skills. According to psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget, these skills develop at a certain age and cannot be acquired before time.

Gross motor skill development is related to the child’s ability to use large muscles. Most importantly, a child should have the physical stamina to join preschool. Then, he must be potty-trained. Along with that, a child should be able to follow simple directions, walk in a straight line, eat his lunch and wash his hands without assistance. A majority of our children admitted to preschools do not have fully developed gross motor skills. This makes them unfit for the tough schedule and demands of the preschool as most of these schools are merely preparatory centres for further education and not proper montessories.

Fine motor skills develop more gradually. This is related to the child’s ability to use small muscles, specifically their hands and fingers, to pick up small objects, hold a spoon, turn pages in a book, or use a crayon to draw. A child having fully developed fine motor skills is able to handle scissors, dress up himself and tie shoe laces. Children are unable to perform these tasks at the age of two-and-a-half years. They have slower reflex actions, lower level of distance judgment and hand-eye coordination. As mentioned already, these skills develop at a certain age and pressuring a child to perform these tasks would be disastrous.

For example, a child of 2.5 years can only use a crayon because the fine motor skills of his fingers are not completely developed and a pencil could damage some of them permanently. The hand-eye coordination also takes time to become perfect. When a child is pressurised by the teachers and parents to improve his handwriting and colouring, it simply builds on stress because he cannot perform better than that. Children under four have difficulties in the playground and at the swings for the same reason. Motor skills can become impaired in a variety of ways, including injury and illness. Later in their lives, they may have problems in riding a bike, in sports and making the right decisions when driving a car.

Speech and language development A child should have the ability to clearly communicate his needs and understand others. For the purpose, a child should see himself as an individual and understand his place in the world. He must be able to join simple sentences together to describe an action or experience and hold a conversation. His language and cognitive abilities should be developed to the extent that he can participate in group activities. He should begin to understand that a story has a particular sequence, beginning, middle and an ending. One can easily guess that a child cannot do these things by the age of 2.5.

Cognitive development As far as cognitive development and performance is concerned, Elizabeth Dhuey, a Canadian researcher, believes that “kids who begin classes later often perform better on tests later and are more likely to attend college.”

Social and emotional development Let’s look at the most neglected area of social and emotional development. Parents think that their child will grow more sensible socially in the school environment. It is true but not for a child under four years of age. Actually, emotional development comes from the child’s interaction with his parents and family. Going to the market or outing or visiting relatives with the parents are experiences that not only add to the social and emotional intelligence, but expand the IQ as well.

Early schooling can be a risk factor because it asks so much of the kids. Preschool is not good for children under four years of age. Play groups are stressful no matter what as kids are stressed by the sensory overload, noise, difficulty of making their needs known to teachers, competition for grabbing attention, necessity of accommodating their own needs to the schedule, etc. Kay Margetts, a professor of early childhood studies at the University of Melbourne in Australia, says that if a child is not ready it could have “… devastating effects on his self-determination and progress.”

Children temporarily “transfer” their attachment focus from parents to the teachers. However, this relationship is not a secure attachment because of its “impermanent” nature. A child in parents’ company develops security and optimism whereas temporary separation from the mother during school hours may develop insecurity and mistrust. This mistrust exhibits itself mostly in teenage or sometimes even later than that.

Moreover, research tells us that children who are in preschool all day have high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones by the afternoon. Sometimes a child keeps himself composed during school hours but as soon as the parent appears after school, he bursts into tears. It reflects that he was passing through an emotional trauma earlier. Many early beginners compensate for the stress in other ways; they regress, they hit their siblings, they have bad dreams or they get clingier. Likewise, youngsters sent to day nurseries before the age of two are more likely to show signs of anti-social behaviour towards their teachers.

On the contrary, older children are able to manage their emotions. During play, they are able to take turns and engage in cooperative activities. The peer relationship skills help them to be socially active like entering a group of playing children.

According to famous psychologist Erik Erikson, the period of 18 months to four years is quiet critical for the child’s social and emotional development. “The well-parented child emerges from this stage sure of himself, elated with his new-found control, and proud rather than ashamed.” On the other hand, if a child is mishandled it, could lead to “… a psychological crisis that includes stormy self — will, tantrums, stubbornness, and negativism.”

Sociologist and psychologist agree that empathy is the most important social skill in terms of family bonding and social integrity. One becomes empathetic only if he is being treated empathically. No one can be empathetic more than a parent, not even teachers. So the most important social skill empathy is acquired in the parents’ company, not in school group situations. If this time is lost these young buds tend to be apathetic towards their parents and siblings later in their lives and we wonder what is wrong with our younger generation.

The writer is lecturer at the English department at the Federal Urdu University for Arts, Science and Technology, Karachi.