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Friday, 1 April 2011

A case for preschools in the public sector

By Muhammad Ilyas Khan

Formal education in the public sector starts from the primary school level, which is the lowest rung in the educational ladder. Primary schools in the public sector provide education to the students from five years onwards. A child’s age is recorded in the primary schools by the school administration at the time of admission and in many cases it is only based on an assumption that the child will be at that time around five years of age.

The exact date of birth of most children getting admitted to government primary schools is not known because of the parents of most of these children are illiterate and do not really keep accurate records of the birth of their offspring. Thus, the date of birth recorded by the school administration is more of an estimate. This means that even though a child may actually be six, seven or even eight when he or she starts classes, the school will record the age as five.

Even if it is assumed that all children who enroll in government primary schools are in fact five years old, is that a good thing — in that is it not too late? Modern research in the field of education and child psychology suggests that the initial five years in the life of a child are exceedingly vital in shaping his or her personality. Unfortunately this is something that is lost on our education planners and policymakers.

In Pakistan, preschools (schools which cater to the educational needs of three to five year-olds) are not very common, except in the private sector in some of the larger cities — however in the public sector they are practically non-existent. As a result, the early years of the vast majority of children from financially poor backgrounds are lost and wasted. This however is not the case in the developed countries where education is one of the highest priorities and this vital process starts very early in a child’s life.

A preschool aims at fulfilling the educational needs of very young children by offering them experiences adapted to their needs and necessary for their growth. In preschools an organized programme of learning experiences is carried out by teachers who promote educational objectives through the use of well-planned activities and teaching materials so as to foster a child’s physical, emotional, intellectual and social development.

Preschool education has significantly positive consequence on the scholastic accomplishment of a child at later stages in life. The process of formal education and schooling should therefore begin well before the fifth year in a child’s life.

Young children have this talent of being able to absorb a lot if the environment and the material within it (the environment) cater to their natural growing and learning urges.

One educator emphasized the importance of preschools by saying: “Anything that a child learns at a preschool can be learnt at home, but the process will be much slower and painful for parents as well as for the child. A child who does not have brothers or sisters of near his own age, becomes everyone’s centre of attention and he begin to grow up thinking that everyone around him exists to wait on him and protect him.”

It is because of its enormous positive impact on the future social and educational life of a child that preschools have received so much importance in developed countries. In Pakistan there are a handful of preschools and these too are in the big cities and mainly in their affluent neighbourhoods, catering to children coming from privileged backgrounds.

Unfortunately due to their high cost, preschools in the private sector are beyond the reach of most middle-income families. Hence, for the preschools that are found, the primary motive in most such cases is to make money on what is seen as an investment. Many parents from middle- or low-income backgrounds want to send their children to such schools but cannot because one, pre-schools are not found in the public sector, two, because the ones that are there are too expensive, and three, because they (the parents) are not given any proper guidance when their children are very young. The result is that their children lag behind in terms of their intellectual and social development compared with children from more affluent backgrounds.

Parents who have nuclear families also feel a need for preschools in the public sector. In nuclear families the parents have to face many problems in the appropriate rearing of their children, particularly if one or both of the parents suffer from some kind of infirmity or face other problems. One common issue is having to work long hours to make both ends meet, the result being that children remain at home lonely and uneducated. Besides this, families from financially unsound backgrounds have small houses, sometimes consisting of a single room and with no space for children to play and such a living environment can be very suffocating for young children.

Then there are parents who only have one child. This child has certain social and psychological needs and should interact with other children of his age group. This is not going to happen unless the child is ready to be sent to school, which will not happen till the time he is five years old. In such a situation, the child can become very fussy as he grows up and also too dependent on his parents. In such a situation, the option to be able to send the child to a preschool can well be a blessing in disguise.

Another benefit — which I think is perhaps the most important one — is that such schools provide an opportunity for working mothers to get on with their jobs despite having young children. This allows them to earn a decent living and to add to the family’s income and this can lead to a better quality of life and standard of living for the whole family. There are numerous instances of women leaving their jobs in order to take care of a young child. This can cause a big economic loss for not only to the mother but also for the whole family.

One other problem that preschools can solve is that in many cases both or one of the parents is uneducated and does not know how to properly look after the child. Sometimes though the parents are educated but both are working, and in this case they are compelled to leave their child in the care of either uneducated grandparents or a servant, which can have harmful influences on the early habit forming phase of the child’s life.

Still another issue is the apparent helplessness of parents in case there are harmful influences coming from the neighbourghood of the child’s home. A child between the ages of three and five can be exposed to bad influences if the neighbourhood where his parents reside in is not good. In Pakistan, it is quite likely that a low-income family may live is just such an area. A preschool can help greatly in this regard by taking the child away from the harmful effects of the neighbourhood.

It is said that play is a child’s work. Playing as an activity has a significant role in the mental, psychological and social development of a child. It can be both indoor and outdoor. Unfortunately children belonging to the low-income backgrounds have few opportunities to play. Their houses are inadequate for this in terms of space and their parents often cannot afford to buy too many toys for them. A preschool can fill this gap by providing children from such backgrounds opportunities to play — both indoor and outdoors — to help them in their balanced development.

Preschools also can help those children whose parents are emotionally unstable or suffer from a mental illness, which can impede the process of development of their personalities and can lead to extremely harmful psychologically problems for them. Besides, children who can be victims of violence at home and may suffer due to strained relationship between parents can enormously benefit from going to preschool.

Besides strengthening the very foundations of education, preschools can also be of great significance in creating opportunities. If properly pursued, this concept can significantly improve our educational system with some very beneficial consequences. We are spending a very high amount of funds on improving our higher education. It is high time policymakers re-thought their priorities and paid due attention to providing a strong foundation to the basic building block of our education sector.

The writer teaches at the Institute of Education and Research, University of Peshawar. Email: ilyasjans@yahoo.com

10 signs of a good preschool
If your child is between the ages of three and five and attends a daycare centre, preschool, or kindergarten programme, the US-based National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) suggests you look for these 10 signs to make sure your child is in a good classroom.

1. Children spend most of their playing and working with materials or other children. They do not wander aimlessly, and they are not expected to sit quietly for long periods of time.

2. Children have access to various activities throughout the day. Look for assorted building blocks and other construction materials, props for pretend play, picture books, paints and other art materials, and table toys such as matching games, pegboards, and puzzles. Children should not all be doing the same thing at the same time.

3. Teachers work with individual children, small groups, and the whole group at different times during the day. They do not spend all their time with the whole group.

4. The classroom is decorated with children’s original artwork, their own writing with invented spelling, and stories dictated by children to teachers.

5. Children learn numbers and the alphabet in the context of their everyday experiences. The natural world of plants and animals and meaningful activities like cooking, taking attendance, or serving snack provide the basis for learning activities.

6. Children work on projects and have long periods of time (at least one hour) to play and explore. Worksheets are not used much if at all.

7. Children have an opportunity to play outside every day. Outdoor play is never sacrificed for more instructional time in the classroom.

8. Teachers read books to children individually or in small groups throughout the day, not just at group story time.

9. Curriculum is adapted for those who are ahead as well as those who need additional help. Teachers recognize that children’s different background and experiences mean that they do not learn the same things at the same time in the same way.

10. Children and their parents look forward to school. Parents feel secure about sending their child to the programme. Children are happy to attend; they do not cry regularly or complain of feeling sick.

— Courtesy: www.preschooleducation.com

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