I was in a couple of preschool classrooms this week. I have never been inside a prison (the only ones i have seen are on TV), but i think these classrooms came pretty close. The rooms were small and crammed with benches. Six in a row and one along the side wall. Each long bench and desk seated six children taking the total number of kids to 42. Dressed in white uniforms, the children formed a stark contrast to the dark brown oil painted walls around them. The walls were bare save a couple of cartoon character cutouts and one string of beads that hung from a nail on the wall. A tall metal shelf was piled with books and the blackboard had a lot of written matter on it for the children to copy…questions and the correct answers were both provided. All 42 children were bent low over their notebooks, scrawling away and copying mindlessly from the blackboard. I asked a couple of the kids what they were writing and they had absolutely no idea..none.
The teacher sat on one side, a long ruler her hand which served as a pointer, a threat and a weapon when needed. During my 15 minutes she managed to lightly smack at least 4 children in the room…2 who were fighting over an eraser, one who was trying to say something but did not know how to in English, and a fourth (hold your breath) for allowing her knee to move off the bench. For a room full of young, fun and curious minds, if this was not prison then what??
So much learning takes place when children explore, discover, interact and engage with each other and their environment. Dewey’s approach to education was one of experience, as was Maria Montessori. Today the emergent curriculum is based on the child’s experiences and Reggio too engages the learner and his different senses in so many ways. How does sitting cramped on a bench all day mean learning? What is a preschooler truly learning on that bench from a blackboard that a conversation and play cannot teach him? How is rote repetition of rhymes making him more proficient in English? (I heard a class singing a song about a bear and a bollafulla huh-neee – bowlful of honey). Why are the walls dark brown or grey? Where is the art and craft? Who decided that 3 year olds needed textbooks and had to do homework? Who gave us the right to stifle their bodies and minds and steal their childhood? Do we truly truly believe we are ‘teaching’ our children?
While this experience was in a low fee private school, the scene may not be that different in our higher end schools too….sure- the space will be brighter and the resources more abundant. But honestly – what happened to free play and fun? What happened to music? What happened to conversations beyond instructions, rules and reprimands? It is time to give our children back their childhood and freedom. It is time to unlock the prisons and open our minds…and allow children to truly develop and grow into the wonderful individuals they can be if only we let them!