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Keeping up with wonderkids

Pre-school education for the toddler is re-inventing itself to suit the child of the new millennium. Nisha Lahiri asks city Montessorians how they’re coping

A bunch of four-year-olds avidly watches a puppet show and hums along to a popular Bollywood jingle, with vegetables singing their respective attributes. Instead of sniffing boxes with smelling tablets, they breathe in the aroma of essences, in paper flowers. A child animatedly feeds the required count of paper worms to a cardboard fish, bearing a number. The purpose is to teach them maths skills, not simply by putting sticks into spindle boxes. The traditional long-stair, used to teach them about sizes and dimensions, is replaced. A group of little ones is busy arranging paper snakes in the right order, instead. Concrete, three-dimensional, recognisable, everyday objects substituted for abstract themes. Another group is fascinated by the ‘teddy rattles’ (sound boxes in the form of teddy bears) and is matching the same-sounding ones

One hundred and fifty years after Maria Montessori pioneered pre-school education for toddlers, the system in Calcutta is now re-inventing itself, to suit the needs of the changing child of the millennium. The methods and the basic ideology is sacrosanct, say teachers and educationists, but the tools and practices are being brought forward to the 21st Century through innovation and imagination.

Wonder Kids Montessori, on Hazra Road, held a four-day festival this week, “the first of its kind in Calcutta”, primarily for teachers and principals, to demonstrate the improvised techniques they use for the two-to-five age group. A workshop was held for the educators, with parents and kids dropping in to the school to try out the tools.

“We stick to the same methods for developing the required skills of a child, from distinguishing sounds and smells to language and number proficiency,” explains Poonam Mohta, director of the Montessori. “All we do is try and find new ways of getting across the same point. Like a Goldilocks puppet show, which focuses on teaching the children shapes and colours.”

So, Goldilocks eats square noodles, sits on a square chair and sleeps on a square bed. Repetition remains, which is the best method to teach children, and yet, an element of newness is introduced to excite them. This then brings them back to the book world, instead of cartoon characters on television.

Swati Popat, an educational adviser with her own Montessori and teacher-training course in Mumbai, is the consultant to Wonder Kids and the Eurokids project. While conducting the workshop at Wonder Kids, she says: “We need to understand the drawbacks of the system first. This is the age when children absorb everything and pick up their first lessons in life. They need an all-round development, including moral and physical, which is missing in most schools.” So, in nursery rhymes, inappropriate words are substituted. In ‘Five little monkeys jumping on a bed,’ ‘broke his head’ translates into ‘bumped his head’.

Birla High School is planning to introduce a Montessori class from the next academic year. Principal Kaveri Dutt went to visit Wonder Kids and took a few pointers. “Infrastructurally, we are constrained by a lack of funds. But we can start introducing some things. Like in the nursery rhyme ‘Piggy on the railway track’, when the engine driver says ‘I don’t care’ in the last line, the changed version — ‘I will take care’ — is much better. It brings home the right values to kids.”

The education system has been constantly upgrading and improving itself, but possibly never faster than today. The principal of Mahadevi Birla Shishu Vihar, Mrs Parekh, stresses the need “to keep up” with the kids. “My three-year-old grandson cannot spell or understand the word ‘oesophagus’, but he can say it and he knows it exists, which is more than what children knew a few years ago, at this age.”

One parent feels that his daughter, now in Class I, has benefited immensely from a Montessori education, “because it brought her into contact with kids her age, and gave her a chance to become confident before she entered school”.

And it’s never too early to start. Sonali Basu, a Montessori teacher at Modern High School, says learning begins at “age nought” and “Montessori is very important” for a child’s early development. “There are specific tools and procedures to follow, which should be continually improved upon.”

Today’s children are more clued into technology, much quicker on the uptake and faster learners than the previous generation. “So, what would have satisfied a child in school even five years ago is not good enough anymore. They are bored more easily. Also, parents’ involvement in their children’s lives is decreasing. Hence, while we can’t compensate for parental attention, the onus is on schools to make sure that the child has a wholesome development, not just a textbook education.”

But the problem is a lack of regulations, inviting incorrect methods that are not illegal. Explains Kusum Bhandari, who has been running the Montessori Bal Nilay for the past 27 years and was among the first to introduce computers for tots in the early 90s. “Montessories are important, but because education below age six is not recognised by the government, anyone can start a Montessori or a training course for the same without any licence, whether they know anything about it or not,” she observes. “And there is no foolproof way for parents to know for sure if they are being hoodwinked.”

The Montessori mania has truly caught on in Calcutta. The main reason for the rush of parents, say some educationists, is the ‘interviews’ held by primary schools during the admission process. “Parents are worried, because there are not enough seats for everyone. So, the best ones get chosen. This makes them nervous, since they obviously want their children to go to good schools,” says Mohta of Wonder Kids.

They are just learning to walk and talk, and most principals want toddlers to know their English really well, as well as the shapes, colours and numbers. All this, while the age of admission is getting lower. “How can they manage'” wonders Bhandari. “This is the only country in the world where education is a business in which the sellers have the upper hand. The parents and the children are the ones who suffer.”

This is a question that was addressed at the Wonder Kids workshop, stressing that the process is “torturing the children and putting undue pressure on them”, too early in life. “The principals were positive in their response, in that they are trying to modify the process, to make it simpler for the youngsters. But it will take time for everyone to catch on,” concludes Mohta.

Pre-school kids learn all about shape and sound, rhymes and numbers, and so much more

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