The work of the Kindergarten teacher involves many dimensions of understanding. The environment we create in the Kindergarten, the content of the programme and our day-to-day responses to the children, all of these reflect our perceptions of childhood. In our schools we are also concerned with the dimension of awareness – being alert with all our senses operating, which seems such a vital part of childhood. What then is our approach to creating a Kindergarten programme?

To me the first thumb rule seems to be that we must preserve what chidren do instinctively. Inherent in this is the acceptance of the wisdom that children have the capacity to evolve their own tools of learning. This becomes selfevident when we focus on the fact that nobody teaches a child to walk or to talk. Current research seems to endorse this perspective too, and I will return to this later.

So if children are doing whatever they instinctively do, then what are we doing with them as teachers? Clearly our focus must shift from active ‘doing’ to active ‘observation’.

Observation of children of this age group (4 to 5 years) yields the following kinds of understanding:

  • They are imaginative.
  • They are intensely curious.
  • They do things for the joy of doing them – there does not seem to be the same kind of sense of purpose to a task that we experience as adults.
  • They learn by imitation.
  • The fear of failure, by and large, does not exist, unlike in the case of older people.
  • They are largely ‘feeling’ people, rather than ‘thinking, reasoning’ beings.
  • They do not make a distinction between work and play.
  • They grow rapidly – physically and cognitively.

Whereas none of the above are new observations, these characteristics have deep implications for both the teacher’s attitude to the child and the activities planned. Since attitudes are harder to pin down, let me first describe the activities that are planned for young children in the Kindergarten programme at The School, Chennai.

Our Kindergarten programme reflects our concern for allowing children to do what they do naturally. It provides the space and time for children to potter around and explore. This may take the form of ‘nature time’, or opportunities for browsing in the library corner and playing with materials of their choice (both Kindergarten and Montessori). Part of the daily routine of the children is unstructured play time, with children choosing just about anything, including the sandpit, or the doll’s house – a large enough house for children to take roles and play out situations (and perhaps put unresolved issues to rest). Their intense desire to imitate and help is utilised in participative duties in the Kindergarten and what we call ‘daily life activities’. They listen daily to stories narrated or read out, and also learn to sing a variety of songs everyday.

The only two areas where we have felt there is room for active intervention are the development of ‘physical coordination’ and ‘cognitive skills’. Both of these are fairly tangible and concrete ‘brain-based’ areas. Games and equipment help in developing small and large muscle coordination. We also introduce themes in our Kindergarten classes such as ‘Myself’, ‘Birds’ and ‘Trees’, to integrate art activities, conversations, show-and-tell (a place for the children’s initiative) and various cognitive activities.

Coming now to the teachers’ attitudes and responses, this is indeed a vital area of concern, for the children of this age group unconsciously absorb cues from us. Perhaps it is best to pose questions rather than attempt to put down guidelines that are answers:

  • How can we preserve the natural sense of initiative and non-conformity in a child?
  • How do we help children remain the ‘feeling’ people that they are, while teaching them to reason, think and speak?
  • How can we retain the spirit of play that is the child and not make heavy weather of work and learning?

I think such questions will have greater meaning if we can appreciate the manner in which the child evolves its own ‘tools of learning’. We may begin by reflecting on what constitutes learning for this age group. Three factors come to mind. They are:

  1. symbolic or metaphoric transfer
  2. lateral or creative thinking
  3. workmanship

Dr. Joseph Chilton Pearce, who has done extensive research on child development, clearly indicates that the ability of the brain to deal with symbols could be the basis of all learning. In other words, the content of all learning is comprised of symbology. The number ‘1’ is the symbol of the quantum ‘one’, the letter ‘H’ is the symbol of the sound ‘ha’, and language itself consists of symbolic representations of objects and emotions.

So in this childhood period, when the brain is growing rapidly, if pathways and connections of symbolic transference are not clearly established, there is little chance of its happening later in life. We could take this capacity for symbolic transference one step further to the capacity for creative or lateral thinking. Such thinking involves finding solutions to questions or problems that are not linear, which do not always follow a known path of logic. For example, after learning to add single-digit numbers, when we learn to add two-digit numbers, this is a clear case of a learnt algorithm being stretched further. However, in problem-solving situations, known algorithms and patterns may not come up with a solution. For instance, each time an unfamiliar word problem in mathematics is to be solved, linear logic will not help in deciding which operator to use and in what sequence. How is the brain to make the leap, to create new pathways, rather than move along known pathways?

Viewing the situation anew through metaphoric or symbolic linkages seems to be a crucial step in freeing the brain from the straitjacket of linear thinking. And there seems to be a clear link between the brain’s ability to learn symbolically i.e. through ‘symbolic or metaphoric transference’, and the child’s play. Dr. Pearce gives the example of a child playing with a spool of thread. The spool becomes a car, a road roller, a tractor, or just about any object that the child’s imagination dictates. A child who is able to play these endless, apparently‘meaningless’ games is actually tutoring its brain in symbolic thinking. The facilityof letting one symbol represent many things gives a flexibility to the thinkingprocess that could be the basis of creative thinking. A child with a rich inner world or a lively imagination is actually developing the power to leap into the unknown.

The key question that arises here is: ‘When children evolve their own tools of learning through their play, do we as teachers understand and honour what is taking place?’ For instance, how many of us feel that a child playing endlessly with a piece of string or a pile of mud is, among other things, actually teaching himself how to learn? Do we acknowledge this fact, that play is the child’s greatest tool for self-expression, socialization as well as cognitive learning? As teachers of young children, these are questions we need to be especially awake to.

We may now ask: ‘What is the importance of ‘sensorial learning’ and ‘alert awareness’ in the learning process?’ This is an area often talked about in our schools, and even discussed with older students. But with an age group where conversation and dialogue are not available as a tool of inquiry, we may need to take a cue from Krishnamurti’s truly challenging statements that there is in fact an ‘inward looking’, that one can ‘look without the word’. We have only some broad clues in navigating this territory with young children. Among these the following could be noted:

  • Very young children often seem alert and alive to sensory perceptions, and we would do well to recognize that state. Maybe in the very recognition is, for the Kindergarten teacher, the most rewarding part of being there – the experiencing, even if fleetingly, of that state.
  • Planning activities that involve two senses simultaneously seems to be one way of fostering ‘sensorial learning’. Our own imagination would be stretched in attempting to do this.
  • The full expression of a sense of order in the child is sometimes inhibited by the clamour for external order. Sometimes the need for such clamour comes simply from wrong timing or from pitching children into situations for which they are not developmentally ready. For example, with young children, group conversations are often laborious efforts. The brain appears to be ready for orderly group activity only by age seven. So it may be a futile exercise to create situations for group conversations and then clamour for order and silence.

In conclusion, I feel that we need to be sharply aware of our own perceptions of childhood. My own idea of childhood changed drastically when I worked with a group of street and working children. I found that that the youngest child in the programme had left home because she felt home was an unhappy place, what with her father drinking regularly and frequent nasty quarrels. She had the wisdom to decide that the environment she was living in was not conducive to her well-being, felt strong enough to walk out of it and felt capable enough of surviving in the ‘ big, bad world’ by herself. And she was but a 5-year-old!

Often it seems that we underestimate the spirit of independence and initiative that little children are capable of. Our design of activities and more importantly our interaction with them rarely reflects this understanding of them. It seems easier to think of them as ‘sweet, innocent and mouldable’. To hold together both, this sense of intiative as well as the vulnerability of the child seems to be the tremendous challenge for the Kindergarten teacher.

Excerpt from Snow-Flakes

...This is the poem of the air,
       Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
      Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.

[Henry Wadsworth Longfellow]