An Alternative Approach to Early Childhood Education

If you had a different childhood education, do you think you would have turned out differently? If you weren’t constantly given directions as a child and were encouraged to forge your own through creative thought and interaction, would you be the same person with similar passions or would you have gone down a different path altogether?

xxx

When I made my way home to Malaysia yet again back in September, I knew I was going to be bogged down with wedding planning and tasks in the two months leading up to my wedding. I also knew that, somehow, I had to find something else to take my mind off the whole wedding situation for fear of being completely engulfed by it.

With my swimming pool closed for renovations – which meant I could not teach swimming either, I knew paid work was going to be hard to come by. And so I set myself the task of looking for an organization with a cause I was interested in to volunteer with. Perhaps a day or two a week where I’d be able to learn a few things and contribute to society simultaneously.

This was how I met Joanna. She was a friend of a close friend who was almost single-handedly setting up a preschool with a different approach to childhood education. We caught up over a drink and she spoke passionately about her travels and how she discovered the Reggio Emilia Approach to preschool education – where early childhood education is perceived to be just as important as tertiary education which is generally quite rare.

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Image extracted via Google Images

This got me thinking about how I grew up as a child and how my education begun. I hardly remember much about my preschool education, apart from the fact that we used to sit in a semi circle with our teacher seated in the front of the classroom. She would guide us into repeating letters and making sentences out of words. I quite possibly used to be so bored that somewhere midway through class, I would end up with tape on my mouth because I was engaging other kids in conversation and causing disruption in class. For the rest of the lesson I would then sit there poking my tongue out trying my hardest to lick out the adhesive glue on the tape so that it would just drop to the ground. Sadly, apart from innocent child play in the playground, end of the year concerts and my teacher constantly telling my parents I was such a talkative disruptive child at class, this is the only significant memory I have of my preschool education in Malaysia.

The most common system we have at present is one in which teachers tell children what is right and what is wrong. Even when a child has a completely rational reasoning towards something, the textbook seems to take precedence and unless it is reiterated word by word, other answers are more likely than not, incorrect. This indirectly encourages a follow-the-pack attitude and individual potential of children remain untapped.

Which is why the Reggio Emilia approach to education seemed to me like a refreshing way to turn childhood education around and, almost immediately, I jumped on board to help Joanna set up the different spaces that were going to be part of this experience.

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The Reggio Emilia Approach to childhood education was developed by a psychologist and parents in the surrounding villages of Reggio Emilia in Italy following World War II – sourced via Wikipedia

Reggio children are provided with an enriching environment in which they are seen as tiny capable adults who are encouraged to express their thoughts personalities, creativity and curiosity while engaging in a social environment.

When you were a child, before you were introduced to the wonderful world of technology, do you remember what you loved doing?

Was it playing up in your tree house? Or digging through sand in the backyard to find secret treasures? Or having tea with your dolls? There must have been a tonne of things that your eyes lit up to.

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Pillow forts! – Image extracted via Google Images

I remember building fortresses out of our living room cushions when I was younger. To watch the cushions leaning against one another without falling was the highlight. I remember compiling my very own magazine from scratch – it had everything, from an editor’s note to a ‘Dear Thelma’ column. When mum got me to take in the dry laundry after school was over, I pretended I owned a boutique and spoke to imaginary customers as I took each piece in and folded them up as a sign that they were bought items.  As strange as this sounds, I also remember my sister and I staging the death of our doll, we had a full blown funeral for her where we ran around her covered up torso chanting like tribal children. I have no idea what sparked the funeral pretend play but it sure stuck with me to this very day!

My point is, children are such creative little beings. I don’t have any of my own but I can certainly draw from my experience back when I was a child – afterall, I would like to think  that was not too far back, was it? 

Imagine if all that creativity, ideas and thought processes were nurtured and not restrained from the very beginning of a child’s learning experience. Imagine if children are given the opportunity to explore their own interests further and take curiosity and experimentation to their own heights. This is exactly what the Reggio approach and Joanna’s preschool environment aims to do.

The curriculum for Reggio children are not set in stone but developed according to the child’s interest and situation. Which means teachers have to play an integral role in observing a child’s curiosity towards his/her surroundings and interaction between children and the environment. Instead of taking a back seat and teaching according to manuals and books, Reggio teachers have to be more in tune with the interests of the children in their classroom so that they are quick to develop a lesson plan that meets the child’s needs.

Some of the projects undertaken during the time I spent volunteering at the preschool were using recycled items to make useful storage compartments for the different spaces within the preschool.

Learning how to make storage drawers and up cycle unwanted items during my volunteer stint to bring together a space that was productive for children was brilliant but above it all, it was exciting to know that ultimately the children were the ones who had the autonomy to shape the space and make the most out of it using their own creativity. It was clear from the onset that whatever we did, it was to enable the children to be comfortable in the space and feel inspired by it.

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Reggio Emilia Children in their element – extracted via Google Images

During our initial conversation, Joanna mentioned that with the emergence of technology, pretend play has massively deteriorated amongst children. These days, it is increasingly easy to allow children to be entertained by an engaging game on a smart phone or iPad. While it is undeniable that children gain some invaluable skills by being exposed to these many forms of technology, I find it quite sad that it is becoming increasingly difficult to unplug and just let the imagination run wild where discovering the world is concerned.

In order to encourage child pretend play and creative pursuits within the preschool environment, the space is divided into several nominated areas for children to explore. There is a reading corner, a building space, an art space, a pretend play area among others. Each space is equipped with child friendly items that help engage children in social interaction where it is safe for them to construct their own learning. As the areas came together quickly, I could almost picture the promise that Anyaman Preschool held.

xxx

I was a really good student at school. I remember investing a lot of time reading textbooks over and over again so that I could remember the context without having to memorize it. Where I did not completely understand I was expected to memorize. As long as it was in the textbook/manual it was correct. I looked forward to the day when a textbook no longer dictated how well I would do in life. And when that day came, all hell broke loose and I felt like I suddenly did not know which direction I was meant to go in. The freedom to decide without being told what to do was overwhelming as much as it was liberating.

Creativity and passion crept back into my life eventually and I learnt how to use it without the constant guidance of a bible. However, I honestly feel that my early schooling experience failed to prepare me enough for tertiary education or the working world. And I wonder if things were different from the beginning and I was allowed to explore with my childhood curiosity and creativity, if I would have been better prepared for a future of uncertainty.

For more information on Reggio Emilia and Joanna’s mission and preschool feel free to visit her website : www.anyamanpreschools.com 

You can also read and find out more about the Reggio Emilia Approach to Education via An Everyday Story which in my opinion is a great article that explains the concept.

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