Letting Children be Children

26 Jun

How early should school start? Is it too much to expect our toddlers to spell their names, rattle off standard nursery rhymes in languages they barely understand and count up to double digits? There is never any right or wrong answer in parenting or teaching very young ones – some will prosper with the same tough treatment that stunts the growth of others. Pressure works in very different ways on little ones and the safe answer normally is to not let them be subject to any pressure at all.

India is among those nations that seek to train their children very young in school skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. We invest in replicating information at a very young age and most of our schooling years are devoted to this very skill. Other countries with very successful primary schooling systems, particularly the Nordic countries work in very different ways. The learning is by discovery, by encouragement and by play. Many schools systems including established nursery and early care systems and experimental schools in India too seek to create such nurturing and enabling environments for children to learn by discovery. But these are available only upto a particular age – be it five or thirteen.. after which the child must learn to buckle up and join the replication race.

The real question we must ask ourselves is – if the young children were not learning their alphabet(s), or their numbers – what would they be learning. For we are learning machines. We observe and repeat, with variations and then learn to be the people we are based on our past observations. Children who are not put through a regime of nursery rhymes and counting sessions also learn much about their environment, emotions and ways of doing things. For the current young generation it has also been observed that they do not necessarily need to concentrate on one thing to be able to learn – that is to absorb and repeat the information handed to them. They have evolved to learning multiple things simultaneously. So, they are learning from television, from their books and from their surroundings simultaneously while seeming to merely jump from one sofa to another. This gives many parents hope.

Learning to replicate is a critical skill in resource constrained countries like India. Firstly, the best schools start admissions early and choose only the smartest children. The burden of proof for smarts lies with the applicant, and the only way of proving it at such a young age is to replicate standard knowledge that they will need in the years ahead. If not for the resource constraint of good nursery schools that act as feeders to good primary schools, our children would not need to face this pressure so early and would, like the Nordics, have the freedom to learn at their own pace. It is also true that the discovery and curiosity path to learning is better in the long term but is also very resource intensive – both with and teachers. Neither our average parent, nor the government can afford to invest resources in something so complex and yet so simple – letting children be children.

In letting children be children, there are skills that they must inculcate to make them better learners and workers in the future – goal setting, team work, turn taking, sharing, the joy of winning, confidence and most importantly – self-restraint and self-discipline. These are the tools our little ones need to hold their own at school and work. Our schools and early years programs (and we have some wonderful examples) will do well to boost such qualities and move away from learning to replicate.

This article was published in the Times of India blogs on June 13, 2012 and is linked here.

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