Category Archives: preschool

Smart Steps Preschool: Quality at an affordable price

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Having children in the preschool age-group, I have spent a good amount of time in high quality high end private preschools  and have blogged about them too – whether it is By the Sea in Mumbai or Gaia in Bangalore … these are spaces which have met my fairly exacting demands of good ECE provision for my kids. Spaces which are for kids and about kids…happy cheerful spaces that recognize children’s needs and work to meet them, spaces that foster interactions and engaged learning and curiosity…Where the environment is truly a teacher who complements and supplements the class teacher(s).

And then, when I walk into low fee private preschool classrooms, I am upset, depressed and angered by the quality of provision I see there. Here are children whose parents work incredibly hard to send them to “English medium, private preschools” …and in all honesty the schools are failing them.  I don’t want to attribute blame or point fingers…the parents understanding of good learning is based on their understanding (or lack) of what good education is. They want their children to be writing and bringing home pages of homework, they want them to recite inane nursery rhymes and be regularly assessed at school. The low fee schools feel they cannot access fancier products and services at the price point they are able to afford, they struggle to hire good quality teachers or find an appropriate space…

And yet the reality of the low fee private schools is depressing. Small cramped classrooms housed in small cramped buildings, preschool classrooms with rows of long wooden benches seating an inordinately large number of children squashed against each other. The paint peeling, the floor grimy, an occasional nail sticking out somewhere. The walls are bare or have numbers and alphabets and maybe a clock. There is no space to move and 3, 4 and 5 year olds are sitting and copying mindlessly from a blackboard or repeating everything the teacher says. An occasional smack or “tap” with a long wooden ruler helps with discipline (I am serious).  There are pockets of happy activities – saying Jack and Jill in a loud voice with strange actions and even stranger punctuation, going for lunch or play time (if any).

And somewhere one wonders whether it is the affordability that is taking so much away from quality. I know the fancy schools my children go to charge a whole lot more and have so much more access to materials and resources. Does one really need that much to access quality. Does quality always need to mean expensive? I have seen models work with less albeit in the non-profit sector. Could it also work in a low fee private school?

A visit to Smart Steps Preschool (an initiative by ABLE Educare) with Smitin Brid helped answer this question and I walked out of there feeling a lot happier. I was a little apprehensive when I first approached one of their centers for a visit. The space looked similar to a typical low fee private school from the outside. But stepping in through the gate, I already began to see the difference. For one, it was clean- of course that matters…how can we imagine creating a nurturing environment for kids minds of we don’t bother with even the basics of safety before that. If you care enough about the child’s well-being and safety, it will be reflected right away in the set up.

I spent some time in 2 Smart Steps Preschools. Both were clean, safe, cheerfully painted and had a lot of teaching and learning material available and accessible. The material wasn’t fancy or expensive. There were different types of building blocks and connectors, jigsaw puzzles, beads, a book library to name a few. It was a refreshing change to see free play set up and also watch the interactions teachers were trying to have with their children.  Usually teacher student interactions are very transactional in nature and this was a move away from that.

The children seemed happy and confident. The teachers used materials of different kids during activities – so during story time, the teacher read the story from a book and also had stick puppets to go with it. She also encouraged the children to try the stick puppets and was perfectly calm when a child accidentally managed to tear the puppet.

I saw children being given strategies to deal with conflict and teachers would model those when required.

The teachers used a bilingual approach and ensured that the children were comfortable and happy to be in school. Which they were – in their cheerful uniforms, colorful bags and enthusiastic conversations to match they certainly painted a happy picture.

Sure there are still gaps to address – working on an ongoing basic to support them and help them hone their skills, to scaffold their learning, to make them better facilitators – but it is a start in the right direction…a start that shows that quality need not come at a high cost. These centers charge between 300 and 2000 a month depending on location and size and are actually able to bring a lot of learning and experiences to their children!

It was heartening to walk into the Smart Step Preschools and I was more than pleasantly surprised. You can find out more about them and their work on: http://smartstepspreschool.com/

process based art

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I have recently found myself in an array of preschools across the country…on a spectrum of affordability and quality. With a few (very few) exceptions, through all the differences of socio-economic backgrounds, space, resources and quality, one feature remained alarmingly constant. Creative art …or rather, the lack thereof. Most preschool classrooms I walked into had cookie cutter art (if at all). 40 similar looking cats stared down at me in one class from the display wall, 35 identical paper plate faces dangled from a string running across the classroom. Green trees with brown barks and red flowers with green stems stood predictably next to square houses with triangular roofs with chimneys (certainly not something a Bombay kid sees outside on the streets). And I am sure next will have diyas with golden cut out paper flames adorning the walls. The work is measured, dictated as a task, the lines too neat to be cut by children, the vision too narrow to have come from a preschoolers imagination.  Where was rthe art of self expression? The splash of color as a child discovers how his brush can glide across a paper? Where are the bold strokes of an artist just finding himself, the smudges as he erases and tries again? Where are the polka dotted tigers and the men with three eyes? Why does art have to end up as a product to be displayed neatly on the wall?

I got talking about this with a friend who has a toddler of her own and she sheepishly admitted that she was guilty of the same thing at home.  Sitting down with her toddler to paint, she wanted something to show for it, something that looked pretty, something that could go onto Facebook or Instagram or the wall. A paper bruised and tearing with watery paint did not make the cut even if the child labored over it. And a crookedly cut greeting card with jagged edges and part of the painting cut off could not be sent to a doting aunt. And so it is that we forget the reason for children doing art and focus on what the adult gets out of it…a product.

I keep saying this on my blog and to people who care to listen…art is a process…there are no samples or instructions for the child to follow – it is an opportunity for toddlers and preschoolers to experiment with materials and media…to watch the ‘magic’ as blue and yellow merge to make green.

There are no mistakes and nothing an adult needs to correct or change. The art is an experience the child chooses and owns.  There is no “color quickly, color within the lines” or “use the correct colors”.

And while it may look like “nothing” it is something the child has created on her own. Process based art helps children relax and enjoy art, it allows them to express themselves and not feel judged.  They move from whole arm movement to finer motor skills as their muscles get ready to do more complex work.  And eventually you will get your masterpiece…but while you wait, allow them to enjoy their million masterpieces – for each one holds meaning of some kind, and even if it does not, it is a free and joyful expression that builds confidence, motor skills, creative thinking and a lot more!

How can you  facilitate process based art at home?

  1. Have materials accessible: paint, markers, crayons, color pencils, stamps, paints, sequins, glue, play dough or clay, collage materials.
  2. Keep a large plastic sheet or old shower curtain handy to spread on the floor for art – protects the carpets and floors and simplifies cleanup
  3. Set up an easel. If that is not possible use tape to put papers up on a plastic cupboard or glass door – painting vertically is important for kids this age.
  4. Allow the child to explore and discover different media
  5. enjoy the process – keep it about the process and not the product

 

 

 

Odd and even

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Odd and even

Amu our youngest boy, soon to be four in a few months, loves numbers…counting forwards and backwards, attempting his brothers word problems and making up ones of his own, he generally seems happy in the world of numbers. This morning I set up the felt board for him and gave him felt numbers to play with. He neatly arranged them from 0 – 10. This was actually a great start for our activity. I then gave him colored tokens and asked him to represent the numbers using tokens (under each felt number). As he started out, I requested him to put the token in pairs. He quickly announced that there would be nothing under zero and moved on to 1 and 2 and so on till 10. Soon each number had pairs of tokens lined up below it in two neat columns.
Amu surveyed his work with a sense of pride. Now I gave him a bunch of big black and white buttons. I asked him to put a black button above every number where a token did not have a pair, and a black button where every token had a pair.
And so we started…white above 1, black above 2. I helped him get started and after he caught on and started putting the buttons all the way to 10.
When he was done, I asked him to look at the black and white buttons and tell me if there was a pattern that he could find. He was quick to say “YES!!!! White, black, white, black, white, black”
So then we looked at the numbers, tokens and buttons and established that 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 all had tokens with pairs while 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 did not. Now, taking it a step forward, I asked him what came after 10. “11” he answered promptly.
“So”, I said, “if you continue this pattern, what color button would you get on 11?”
“White” was the answer.
Me: And then, do you think all the tokens under 11 would have a pair?
Amu: Nope!
Me: What about 12?
Amu: That would be a black button…so yes it would have a pair.
That was our mini-lesson to introduce the concept of odd and even. We did not get into the terms at all…this was just a starting point for further discoveries. For a few days I will simply set the felt mat out for him with the numbers and tokens and let him continue this journey before taking it further.
This took all of 10 minutes and was fun for both of us. Amu wants the felt board counting when he gets back from school too!

Please don’t tell my child ‘how’ to draw

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You know that beautiful beautiful poem called the Hundred Languages of Children? What the Reggio Emilia approach is based on?
About how the child has a hundred languages…a hundred ways of expressing, of being, of looking at the world? And how the school and culture take away ninety nine?

That poem always touches a chord in me…and today as i looked at a couple of “worksheets” in my 5 year old son’s bag, saw the corrections marks on it, his lopsided scrawled words underlined with a bold pen, “aided work” as a comment next to another that labelled him as a slow and hesitant reader, i teared up, thinking how this was already starting to happen. They were taking away the 99..I saw how a picture he had drawn of himself had been reshaped with a pen, detail added in, legs where they should be and hair on the head. There was a prescribed way of being, of writing, reading and seeing. And that was all that mattered here.

This child has just moved cities. He has watched his home disappear into boxes, he has said bye to his friends, his neighbours and teachers…even to the park and his favorite frangipani tree. He has changed homes and schools and not even had the time to settle down or make friends. He has started the in the middle of a term in a school so different from the one he has been in and I find these comments and remarks on his sheets. There are instructions for me to work with him on reading and better writing..sure, all that i can do if i really must. But please, can you let his drawing be? Please don’t tell him to look at the world through your eyes. Ff his person has crooked legs, let that be. he may need to work some more on his motor skills but allow him to express himself as he is able to. And whatever you do, remember he is fragile…do not damage his self esteem. I want him to grow up to be a good human being, comfortable with himself and happy.

Gaia: A school that we will truly miss

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Today was the boys’ last day at school…

I still remember when we had moved to Bangalore two years ago and started scouting for a school. We had the bar set very high…after their preschool in Mumbai, we wanted something that would be similar…a place where they could be themselves, where they could be children, discover joy in simple things…a school that was uncomplicated and offered them a chance to discover themselves. it wasn’t easy but after a lot of thinking we decided on Gaia…a small stand alone preschool in RT Nagar, Bangalore. We fell in love the premises when we first walked in with the boys. The gate opened and we stepped into a lovely garden compound with fruit trees, birds, a nice play area, a sandpit, jungle gyms and other cool stuff to climb. There were tyres for children to walk and balance on, a trampoline, a little tree house and a puppet house too.

The classrooms all connected to each other in a lovely house – something i loved straightaway. But yet i was worried…Would the teachers be good? Would they take the time to understand the boys? Would they allow them to learn at their own pace and find themselves in the process? Or would they be swallowed up in the rut of rote learning and piles of homework? Would the teachers compare the twins? Would they judge them or misunderstand them? Would they provide them with the stimulus they were so used to getting at By The Sea? Of course I was worried…who does not want the best for their kids?

And now, two years later, as we get ready to move once again, I cannot thank our stars enough that we discovered Gaia when we did. It met all I wanted it to and more…the children have loved every day there and every person…and have been loved back too. They have spent time watching ants and hammering nails and observing birds and climbing all over the place. They have come home every day with sand in their hair and mud on their feet, with seeds in their pockets and so many stories. They have read so many books, played games and heard songs…they have started to read and write and understand numbers too. They have made friends and memories!

Their teachers have loved hem for who they are, they have washed away boo-boos and comforted them on days when i was traveling and they were low…they have gotten to know my boys for who they are and accepted them for that. They have been open to feedback and always ready to learn from around them.

Every child knows the other, every teacher knows every child and all three of my boys are comfortable with all the adults in the school. The person who runs the school is an incredibly wonderful lady and my boys love her to bits. Sid enjoys sitting down and chatting with her, pulling her leg and running off with her hairclip – and he knows she does not judge him badly for that – for she does not look at it as indiscipline but just a child’s fun way of connecting with her.

Thank you Team Gaia for making the last two years so wonderful, magical and full of love and care for my three boys. We are really really going to miss you! Gaia is such an important integral part of our life in Bangalore…a part that made our stay here even more special!

Letter to a teacher

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As my boys are getting bigger and now starting big school, i look at them with pride and some trepidation. So much is about to change for them and so quickly. They are going to move from a very informally structured preschool that focused so much on play and interactions and conversations and discoveries to a more structured school that marks the end of the preschool era for them. As they start kindergarten, i worry about how they will cope, how they will perceive this new world around them.

For they have been brought up a little differently. They have barely watched TV, we have no toy guns or swords at home, they have spent hours with cardboard cartons and paints and beads and glitter. We have read and reread a zillion book, spent hours listening to and making music. We have celebrated them for the individuals they are for they are very very different…and that is exactly what worries me as they start formal school. While one of the twins is more conformist to what one would expect in a classroom, the other is a free spirit…for him relationships are really important and he wears his heart on his sleeve. He is naughty, always has a twinkle in his eye and loves to tease. He can think laterally, draw connections, remember all kinds of details about people and places. He takes time to settle down and prefers being asked to being told. As he starts this big journey, a part of me wants to hold him close and protect him for he is incredibly sensitive…and yet i know i need to let him go, because he will find his feet and his own.

Here is a letter I have put down, which is just to put my feelings down:

Note to my child’s teacher

I am entrusting you with something incredibly precious – my child.
He is a free spirit and loves to learn. He has a hundred questions, about the wind and stars and trees and birds and waves and people. He does not ask them to annoy you but because he wants to learn. He loves to touch things, feel them, hold them, smell them, try to turn them upside down or open them to see how they work. He is not being badly behaved or destructive, simply curious about the way the world around him works. He forms close bonds with people and sometimes takes time to settle down … he is not being difficult, simply taking his time for something he knows is important. You can’t hold the wind in your hand or wave in the sand…my boy’s spirit is like that, it aches to roam free. But that does not mean he cannot be still for even the ocean is sometimes calm and the breeze pauses till the air is so still. Let him appropriate and understand what he is doing and he can be focused and calm, content to work on mastering a task. He is a thinker and a person who loves others, who gives of himself more freely that most others. Focus on that side of him that smiles and shares and you will see his other sides blossom too. Don’t compare him to his brother or neighbor who may listen better or do his sums faster. It hurts him and though he does not show it I share his pain when I look at his eyes that reflect the hurt deep within. He is easy to misunderstand if you don’t slow down and take the time to see what he has to offer. Because he is not willing to sit in the box you may want him to.  Don’t label him because you don’t understand him and labels stick much more than you might want them to. Believe in him and he will show you that you were right in doing so. Just because he fidgets does not mean he isn’t listening, just because he not raising his hand all the time does not mean he does not know…he may not feel the need to demonstrate his learning right there just when you want it. I know you feel it is important for him to conform, to do things exactly when you feel he should be doing them, for I understand that as a teacher you have the whole class to manage, to take along with you on this wonderful journey and you don’t want to leave anyone behind. But please make sure that the journey does not imprison this bird or cut his wings, allow him to be the child he is, allow him his speed to learn, his curiosity, his wonder at the world, his slightly messy scribbles, his funny ways of showing affection.  The world is full of high achieving competitive people, the world has so much mistrust and hate and war. I think we need more free spirits who can stand up to wrongs, who can take their time to be happy, who can take the time to hug another or share a cookie.

I am entrusting you with something extremely precious…my child…IMG_8172

A Kaleidoscope of Children by Jayanti Tambe – Book Review

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It’s been a while since I wrote…the days have gotten busier and more packed with the boys and work and I seem to hardly find the time to write.

But today I decided I simply had to…have been meaning to post something about this incredible book that was published recently – a little earlier this year.

A Kaleidoscope of Children written by Jayanti Tambe is an absolute must-read for anyone working with early childhood…by anyone I mean parents, teachers of infants, toddlers and preschoolers, early childhood care-givers, students of early childhood and education…It is a book that simplifies this rather complex age and process…that makes it accessible to a range of economic backgrounds too. The ideas here are not simply for the elite private preschools with loads of funding but for the poorest of Anganwadi centres that wants to make a difference in the way they look at children and learning.

Jayanti Tambe, the author, is the Executive Director of Early Childhood Care and Education at UCLA. But more than that, she is an incredible teacher who has worked extensively (and most creatively) with young children and preschoolers in the United States and India as well as for a short while, in South Africa. Her experience, creativity and passion make the book really engaging and difficult to put down. it gives the reader the unique perspective of a teacher and a professor – a rare combination of theory and praxis. It also has lovely color photographs to better illustrate what the author is saying.

The book addresses different domains of development – physical, socio-emotional, and cognitive. Each domain is broken up into short chapters that come alive with Tambe’s narrative style. While there are a lot of pedagogical and theoretical constructs subtly and seamlessly interwoven with the narrative, the focus is on real life examples and discussions. As you read the book, you can actually hear the voices, see the colours, imagine the children jumping and playing, drawing at an easel or building a tower…and this time when you hear the voices and see the children you have the key to decode what they really are saying and doing and that makes it all the more magical.

You will have ‘aha’ moments and times when an example will resonate so strongly with you that you truly begin to relate to the book. It is replete with interesting suggestions and ideas and does not hesitate to bring up and talk about a range of things that emerge from children’s conversations – questions on colour and gender and sex, obsessions with potty talk, same sex parents and even death.

The short chapters in the book make it easy to read. The chapters are complete in and of themselves and can be read in isolation. So you can choose to read the book sequentially or simply open it to a chapter you find relevant. Whatever works for you…but there is something in there for you for sure!

I have recommended this book to a few educators and friends who have children in the this age group and I would strongly recommend it to those who are reading this blog post (assuming that most of you who are reading this do have kids in this age group). 51yJrD1MS2L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_

Preschool prisons

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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??

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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!

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Beading with the boys

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We have a lot of beads at home..big chunky plastic ones, slender tube shaped paper ones, translucent beads that gleam magically in the light, beads with tiny beads, hand painted ones and salt dough beads.   We started out with large platic ones and shoe laces because I thought the boys would enjoy those. However, after an initial couple of days, they were relegated to the back of the shelf and my three boys soon lost interest in them.  Then, sometime last year (the twins were shy of 4 and the little fellow was 2 then) we were together in an art and craft store when we happened to come to the bead section. Nish’s eyes totally lit up. He ran his fingers through the gorgeous glittery beads and asked me what they were. When I told him they were beads he was confused – the only ones he knew were the chubby plastic ones. Then it clicked for him – “Can we make real necklaces with these?”

And that was the starting point for our exploration and fairly long relationship with beads.  The boys amazed me with the amount of time they spent with the beads. They made necklaces, bracelets and earrings with them.  They used beads of the same color, beads in random orders, beads in very clear recurring patterns.

They started counting as they created…12-15 beads for bracelets, two for the earrings, etc.

They separated the beads into big and small, bright and pastel colors, into shades of pink and purple, into color families (as one of my boys called it – colors he thought went well together). This was a wonderful way to talk about shades and patterns.

They also realized that big does not always mean heavy…that too many colors does not necessarily lead to pretty.

They learned patience because it takes time to bead and perseverance because ever so often you let the end slip from your fingers and lose a bunch of beads from your strand…and you need to start over.

We figured easy solutions like making a big knot for the bracelet to stop the beads from sliding off, or the trick of tying the string to your toe so it is easier to manage and frees up one hand.

I am now thinking of using the beads to do more math concepts…tens and ones, understanding concepts of more and less. Let’s see how that goes.

foam pieces, tessellatations and a discovery

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We have been playing with cut up foam pieces for a long time now. But recently I came across a few sets of foam created by JodoGyan called Rangometry (www.jogogyan.org).

The foam is thick and sturdy and the pieces lend themselves to endless tessellations and combinations. Initially I let the boys simply explore the sets. They made all kinds of things using the pieces. The set has squares, triangles of two different types, diamonds, and hexagons.

Finally this morning as we were enjoying a chilled out morning in the balcony, I thought of pulling out the rangometry kit. This time we first played a game (an activity I learned about at the JodoGyan workshop called Sajaana). I drew an outline of a bus using a marker on the plexiglass sheet along our balcony railing. Then using a large dice each child rolled, identified the number rolled and picked out the matching number of pieces of rangometry foam which they placed along the outline. (Note: we had poured the foam pieces into a bowl of water. The made them wet and they adhered easily to the plastic sheet we were playing on) Since the twins are comfortable with numbers upto 10 we used a 12 sided dice (dodecahedron) which has numbers from 0-10 (5 is repeated once). It was great because here is what was happening as we played:

  1. the kids had to identify the number on the dice face correctly
  2. They had to then pick out the corresponding number of foam bits from the bowl
  3. They had to then put those pieces in continuation on the outline of the bus (fine motor skills)
  4. They quickly figured out bigger and smaller numbers, getting most excited when they got high numbers like 8 or 9 or 10 and a little sad when they got 3, 2 or 1
  5. They – especially the 3 yr old got the meaning of zero – it means nothing!! as he exclaimed when he rolled it and could not put anything on the outline. (It is useful to follow JodoGyan advice here – when a kid rolls a zero, do not give him another turn because not giving him another turn allows him to understand and appreciate the value of zero)
  6. We got quite a pretty outline with the kids trying to make patterns as they went along.

After we were done with this, I started playing with the pieces and started out a tessellation type design. I found Nish (5 yrs next month) was most interested. He observed carefully while I made pattern and then asked if he could help. With a tiny bit of guidance he started out and then was so fascinated that he went on and on…quickly inspiring his twin to join in too! I had not thought they would get it so easily but it was a pleasant surprise and they totally enjoyed it too!

And, since I have mentioned JodoGyan a few times here – you must check out their website. They have developed a math teaching and learning program preschool up that is pretty incredible. With a strong focus on the child, developmental appropriateness and simplicity, the program is actually very interesting and I would strongly recommend educators – especially in the preschool space to look at it. In stead of trying to cram the preschooler with endless numbers to read, identify and write repeatedly, moving into tens and hundreds and place value and complex operations, the program focuses on making math a concrete and enjoyable fun learning experience where comprehension is key. Given the general experiences in math learning across age groups it is indeed time to stop and look at math learning differently. For schools that are interested – they actually do detailed and very practice based training for teachers who plan top use their materials.

Note – I am not a representative of JodoGyan nor have I been asked to talk about it. However, I have recently come across their material and have been quite impressed – hence sharing this here with you!