For many children, the path of learning begins when they enter preschool aged three to five. Preschool plays a crucial role in laying down social and educational foundations for young children – it is where they will be taught how to recognise numbers, shapes and letters and where they begin to interact with their peers and teachers.
Most children attend an average of one year of preschool, and studies have shown that kids who do have better skills in math, reading, problem solving and are better socialised.
But just like any other school, preschools do not have a one-sizefits-all curriculum. Some may be more academic-based, some may be playbased, and others employ a mixture of both.
It is important to ensure that the preschool you choose uses a programme that is suitable for your child's development. Here are some of the preschool curriculums available in Malaysia.
Created by and named after Dr Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor and educator, the Montessori approach is one of the most commonly available in Malaysian preschools.
This childcentric approach revolves around the notion that education is a natural process, and allows the child to decide on and complete their own learning activities at their own pace. Teachers are there to plan the activities and materials, and serve mainly as guides.
"The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child," says Nan Civel, founder of The children’s house – the first Montessori preschool in Malaysia.
Recognising that each child is an individual and is different from an adult, the Montessori method is broken down into five curriculum areas:
• Practical Life
• Number Work
Some Montessori toys, known as ‘manipulatives’, help children develop reasoning and deductive abilities through playing with them instead of being shown how to play with them – completing a puzzle on their own and seeing how it fits perfectly together, for example. Montessori classrooms also tend to be mixed age as children are all working at their own levels instead of adhering to a standard.
This approach believes that taking ownership of their own learning instils a love of learning in children and helps build character, understanding, and confidence, turning them into compassionate and respectful children with a positive self-image.
"These qualities give them a strong head start in education for learning is internal rather than external. It’s something that they want to do," notes Nan.
This approach is very similar to the Montessori method in that it is also child-centric, but the Reggio Emilia philosophy highlights the importance of community.
Parents and teachers are considered partners alongside the children in the learning process, with the former working together and sharing ideas to jointly create the best learning experiences and environment for the children.
The environment is also highlighted here as the project-based approach encourages children to explore their surroundings and get involved in hands-on experiences that stimulate their minds. They are given every opportunity to encounter many different types of materials and activities to make the learning of their subjects ‘come alive’.
“Children fundamentally learn experientially and in context to the world they live in. The environment plays a major role in providing the platform for them. Through the projects that they are involved in and other creative curriculum components, they have opportunities to develop holistically,” says Patrick Terence Lim, Curriculum Specialist at Odyssey The Global Preschool, which has a fully equipped Reggio Emilia-inspired campus.
Documentation is also a core concept of the Reggio Emilia approach. Teachers may present children with specific materials and record how the child responds through taking photos or videos and writing observations.
This recordkeeping allows all parties to review not just the extent of the child’s progress in a year, but how they have progressed in their thinking and creative processes.
As noted by the International Association for Steiner/Waldorf Early Childhood Education, the Waldorf philosophy asserts that ‘young children learn through imitation, through the experience of diverse sensory impressions, and through movement’. Thus, the curriculum concentrates on experiential education to let children learn through play.
The attitude of the educator is considered as central to the programme as they are seen as examples for the children to imitate. Therefore, they are encouraged to position themselves as good role models and develop a close and continuous attachment with the children.
The classroom setting usually resembles a peaceful home with simple toys made out of natural materials. Children are given plenty of opportunity for self-initiated play, artistic activities like storytelling and painting to encourage imagination and creativity, and practical work like cooking, baking, and gardening.
Electronic media is discouraged in Waldorf classrooms to 'support the child in forming a healthy relationship to the world'. Academic advancement is also less of a priority; the focus here is on the 'processes of life' rather than on the learning outcomes and there is no homework, tests or handouts.
Routine is also important to the Waldorf approach, with set days and times for different types of activities and seasonal festivals celebrated according to the surroundings. This is said to give children a sense of security and an understanding of the 'interrelationships and wholeness of life'.
While the three preschool education philosophies mentioned above are some of the most widespread in Malaysia, it is actually more likely that you will find preschools adopting best practices from one or more of these curriculums along with their own proprietary programmes.
Safari Kid International Preschool Kuala Lumpur uses a unique curriculum that takes elements from Reggio Emilia, Waldorf (Steiner) and Montessori along with their own Silicon Valley developed accelerated learning programme, which concentrates on developing cognitive, language and communication abilities. They also customise the programme to each child’s learning capacity, with students advancing in stages.
Hévéa, the kindergarten section of the French School of Kuala Lumpur, employs the French curriculum used in every French school around the world. It is similar to the Montessori approach, and the programme includes speaking, reading, writing, numeracy, music, arts and sports activities.
Children also begin to discover concepts like space and time, and learn about their body and senses. One advantage is the opportunity to learn both English and French – learning multiple languages is best started young.
Beaconhouse’s preschool curriculum revolves around the mantra ‘Play to Learn, Learn to Play’. Beaconhouse Newlands Early Years combines the UK Early Years Foundation Stage with the Beaconhouse School System Curriculum, providing exciting and educational activities that help children learn, develop skills, build relationships and celebrate success. It prepares children for the Cambridge International Programme and other international curriculums by establishing a solid foundation in language, math and science.
There is no clear cut ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ choice when it comes to choosing a preschool curriculum, but it should achieve its goal of helping the child develop in a holistic manner. As noted by Jigna Doshi, Principal of Safari Kid International Preschool Kuala Lumpur: “An ideal preschool curriculum is one where all the aspects of development are present and choosing the appropriate one means that they develop properly during the most crucial years of their lives.”
In the end, preschool is a child’s first encounter with directed learning and while they should be encouraged to take an active interest in the learning process, the most important thing is for them is to have fun while learning. Because ultimately, kids should be allowed to be kids!