For many children, the path of learning begins when they enter preschool, usually between the ages of 2.5 and three years. Preschool plays a crucial role in laying down the social and educational foundation for young children, from learning the basics of numbers and letters to interacting with teachers and peers. Most children attend an average of one year of preschool, and studies have shown that this enhances numeracy, reading and socialising skills.
Preschools don’t have a one-size-fits-all curriculum – some are focused on learning as early as possible, others prefer to be more play-based, and there are those that employ a mixture of both methodologies. For parents, it’s important to ensure that the preschool you choose follows a programme that is suitable for your child’s development and where they will enjoy learning.
Developed during the early 20th century, the Montessori method of education was created by and named after Dr Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor and educator. This approach has become one of the most widely used programmes for preschool education and is commonly available in Malaysia.
The programme’s child-centric approach revolves around the notion that education is a natural process and allows the child to decide what activities they want to do and complete at their own pace. Teachers serve mainly as guides, to plan and oversee activities and prepare teaching materials. They move around the classroom instead of giving instructions from the front, and the focus is on the development of the child as a whole – intellectual, physical, emotional and social.
Recognising that each child is an individual and different from an adult, the Montessori method is broken down into five curriculum areas:
• Practical Life: prepares the child to interact with the things around them and encourages independence through activities like basic food preparation (cutting fruit), personal hygiene (hand washing, brushing teeth), matching and sorting (colours, shapes) and looking after their environment (dusting, tidying up).
• Sensorial: activities focusing on the five senses, which train them to distinguish a wide variety of concepts including size, shape, texture, temperature, sound, taste and sound.
• Number work: Montessori mathematics comprises activities designed to teach children the basics of numbers, geometry and the decimal system. They then progress to addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and are also encouraged to work independently as they improve.
• Language: most children will already have an acceptable command of language when they enter a Montessori classroom at the age of three. The activities devised for language is aimed at encouraging the child to focus on different sounds, organising letters to make words and learning how to write.
• Culture: covers history, geography, general science, music, art and movement. Children learn about different cultures through maps, flags and different festivals, and begin to understand the concept of similarities and differences in a fun way.
Montessori toys (known as ‘manipulatives’) are used to help develop reasoning and deductive abilities, achieved through independent play instead of being shown how to play with the toys; for example, completing a puzzle on their own and seeing how it fits perfectly together.
Montessori classrooms tend to have children of mixed ages all working at their own pace instead of adhering to a standard. This approach encourages taking ownership of their own progress and instils a love of learning. It helps build character, confidence, respect and compassion.
This approach is very similar to the Montessori method in that it is also child-centric, but the Reggio Emilia philosophy also 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 settings for the children.
The environment is also highlighted 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’. This approach comprises several principles including:
• Emergent curriculum: topics are derived from asking the children what they would like to learn about, and is also based on common themes that interest them, e.g. insects, colours, water, animals.
• Projects: based on the topics being taught (which in turn are based on the children’s interests) and can be simple assignments lasting a few days to more complex projects lasting the entire term. Teachers act as guides and facilitators but it’s the students who lead and choose how their projects should run.
• Diverse presentations: topics and concepts that are learnt using the Reggio Emilia approach are presented using various forms. In order for the children to understand and enjoy learning new concepts, they are taught using many mediums including music, art, craft and drama.
• Collaboration: working together to create, understand and solve problems is an integral part of early education, and learning to work as a team is a skill that should be honed from an early age. Collaboration teaches children how to discuss, negotiate, ask questions, get along with one another and enjoy a sense of belonging and independence.
Documentation is also a core concept of the Reggio Emilia approach. Teachers may present children with specific materials and record how the child responds by taking photos or videos and writing observations. This recordkeeping allows all parties to review the child’s development throughout the year and to see 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’. Accordingly, the curriculum concentrates on experiential education to let children learn through play. The attitude of the educator is considered central to the programme as they are seen as examples for the children to imitate.
Teachers are encouraged to position themselves as good role models and develop a close and continuous rapport with the children. The classroom usually resembles a peaceful home with simple toys made from 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 more likely that you will find preschools adopting best practices from one or more of these curriculums along with their own proprietary programmes.
Some preschools follow a curriculum that takes elements from Reggio Emilia, Waldorf (Steiner) and Montessori and combines them with their own learning programmes. Then there are those that use a known curriculum as the foundation for teaching but in different languages, e.g. bilingual kindergartens teaching English and Mandarin / Malay / French.
International schools also have their own methodologies, which are based on either the British, American or Australian curriculums. These early years programmes prepare students for a smooth transition into the first year of primary school. 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.
These first years of education 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 to have fun while learning. Because ultimately, kids should be allowed to be kids!