There has been much debate in Europe about whether it is more important for children to learn or to play at pre-school. Should children not wait until they are at least 5 and ideally 7 to go to school? This dilemma is itself based on an outdated concept of learning, in which adults talk and children listen, children sit still and become passive. Ideally pre-school is both education and care, not delivered at different times but together. A kind but firm adult will be a child’s best teacher, not teaching them older skills but giving them freedom to learn if they wish rather than over-determining their daily interests.
We are asked in Zurich, why teach children so young? Let them walk barefoot across fields, and develop their spirits before their minds! Should they not play freely before they have to learn what work is? This romantic ideal of childhood is particularly appealing the further away adults get from it. Adults have to work, children do not. But as Maria Montessori noticed, children do not have this concept of ‘work’ being separate from ‘play’. They pour themselves into every activity, their interactions are intense, personal and emotional. It is the adults around them who will have to help them to develop a notion of ‘working hard’ when their children are older and have learnt not to work hard, because young children are naturally industrious! This is one of the many reasons why I feel comfortable spending a lot of time with children, before adult concepts have been introduced that reduce their natural enthusiasm for life.
At Children First we aim to make early learning fun, rewarding and linked with family values. Young children are not forced to sit at a desk, their first school here offers beautifully open spaces in which moving around from one learning zone to the next is encouraged. We understand that children learn while they are moving and should not be restricted. The role of the ‘teacher’ is to guide them kindly in how to make the best use of the toys, games and equipment in their tailor-made classrooms. They learn good habits, such as how to channel their energy into constructive activities that will develop their young minds, helping them to acquire a broad, rich vocabulary. From language comes negotiation, as soon as they are talking fluently in at least one language they can learn how to negotiate which will prevent conflict in the kindergarten and start to lay the foundations of valuable skills for life.
What about the paradise of childhood, should children be indoors all day, with a structured routine, rather than following the organic ebb and flow of domestic life at home? The reality is, being a child is never completely ideal, because children depend on others for their happiness. Independence comes early, but socialisation creates bonds that complement and balance a child’s growing individuation. As parents we can only influence who they spend their time with, who they learn from. Learning is not something children only do at school. Similarly playing is not what children only do at home. Children learn all the time, every minute, they absorb everything around them and these stimuli are contributing to their development, even from babyhood. Trained adults can focus on their learning and development, and feedback to parents how their children are growing up. Once children get to 3 years old or 4, these adults are called teachers. But they are much more than that, they are carers and leaders and role models. Their skills and abilities, such as command of language, are hugely influential. Early years teachers become responsible, alongside parents, for the most important job in the world, shaping the hearts and minds of the next generation and realising the full potential of each and every child.