Archive for ‘education’

December 23, 2011

Hannukah “play”, Montessori-style

by Decemberbaby

I have always been in favour of what I call “child labour” (letting children do actual household tasks) and have often viewed most toys as superfluous, unnecessary, and even insulting to children’s abilities and intelligence. Recently, though, I’ve come to see how having one child in a Montessori school has affected my parenting decisions for the other children at home. Here’s the most recent example:

It’s Hannukah (as we all know by now), and while perusing our local Jewish newspaper I saw an ad for a sale on a wooden hannukah playset. It looks like this:

I considered buying one. I thought that N would definitely love putting the candles into the menorah over and over again, and he might actually like to spin the dreidel. I went so far as to put “buy wooden hannukah set” on my to-do list. Then I laughed at myself, because the Montessori parent in me knows that this is a ridiculously unnecessary toy.

N wants to put candles into a menorah? Good. Let him practice with real candles and a real (metal, unbreakable) menorah. Does he want to hold and look at a dreidel? Great. I happen to have a large wooden dreidel (too big to be a choking hazard to anyone) that he can hold and play with. And what use is wooden hannukah gelt? It’s not shiny like the real thing, and you can’t eat it. No, better to give him one or two pieces of real gelt to look at, and later show him how to unwrap it and let him taste the chocolate. As for the wooden latkes and frying pan, why would he need those when he’s allowed to help me wash potatoes, mix the batter, and eat actual latkes?

This is a very real, concrete example of the Montessori attitude towards pretend play. In Montessori, children don’t have to pretend to work in a kitchen, or to plant a garden, or put candles in the menorah. They don’t have to pretend, because they can really do it. They might want to repeat the task (put candles in, take them out, examine them, put them in, take them out…). They might not do it with great skill. But they will do the task over and over again until they have mastered it. No toys, just real objects and tools that are appropriately sized for children’s hands.

As for N, this morning he pointed at the menorah and put his hands over his face, imitating the way we cover our eyes when lighting shabbat candles (we don’t cover our eyes for hannukah candles, but I suppose candles are candles, at this age).

“Do you want to practice lighting hannukah candles?” I asked, and in response he put his hands over his face again and then peeked out, smiling.

I gave him a box of candles and set him up on the window seat so that he could reach the menorah on the windowsill. He picked up one piece of the menorah (it comes apart) and tried to walk away with it. “N,” I said, “the hannukiah stays here so that everyone can see it when we light the candles.” He put the piece back. Then he reached for the candles and began to place one in each holder. When all of the holders were full, he covered his face and giggled.

N repeated the task over and over again for about half an hour. Some candles got broken, but gradually he learned to be more gentle with them. The focus and pride on his face was an excellent reminder that, given the tools and the opportunity, our children will master the tasks that make up our lives, no toys required.







September 19, 2011

Cynical about full-day kindergarten

by Decemberbaby

I just couldn’t shut up about this one. Jennifer in Mamaland recently asked a government representative about the new full-day Junior kindergarten program in Ontario. She was directed to a government page about the issue, entitled “the research is in” that explains why full-day kindergarten is such a good idea.

I’m married to a cynical engineer, and I have a touch of cynic in me too, so I take all research citations with a grain of salt. But for some reason, this list (and the way it was worded) just really irked me. Here is the text of the page in italics, and my cynical responses.

Many studies have shown that full-day learning programs for four- and five-year-olds can have a positive impact on their academic, social and emotional development. These programs also give the children’s parents more opportunities to work towards a better future for their families. For example:

Notice the weasel phrasing “can have a positive impact”. Sure it can. But “can” is not the same as “consistently does”. Watch out for weasel words, people. As for the programs giving more opportunities for parents to earn more money, doesn’t that mean that we’re providing free daycare for 4-year-olds? Anyhow, let’s look at the research:

  • A Rutgers University study found that prolonged and regular full-day preschool attendance significantly increased children’s verbal and mathematics test scores in Grade 1 and beyond.

Which children? Where? What was the socioeconomic status of the children being followed? And once again, notice the weasel words “in Grade 1 and beyond”. Grade 2 is beyond Grade 1, but if the test scores are only elevated for those two years, that means that eventually everyone evens out regardless of kindergarten attendance. So let’s clarify: how far “beyond” were these test scores elevated? And on another note, could their test scores be higher because they’re being trained in test-taking behaviour at an earlier age?

  • A University of Ottawa study found that full-day preschool programs for four-year-old children had a positive effect on the children’s language and academic learning.

That’s great. How large was this effect? Was it sustained past the kindergarten year? And “positive” is pretty vague. Did the kids enjoy it more? Retain more information? Learn to actually use the information?

  • That same study noted that parents of the children enrolled in the full-day program observed higher levels of progress in their children, and that the teachers observed that children in the full-day program more easily adjusted to academic life than children who attended a half-day program.
Oh, I see. Thanks for clarifying that. Let’s point out that this couldn’t possibly have been a double-blind study, so parents’ observations of progress might be because they expected to see progress, or that they wanted to justify committing their kids to a full day in school for whatever reason. Also, “higher levels of progress” than whom? Than a different set of kids and parents? Than what they expected? Once again, there’s a serious lack of specificity here.
As for the teachers’ observation of easier adjustment, it’s fairly obvious that it takes kids a fair amount of time to get used to school at the beginning. So if your kid begins full-day schooling at age four, he or she will be pretty much adjusted to it by halfway through the following year. Kids who start at age five will, by comparison with the previous group, seem to adjust more slowly. They actually are adjusting at the same rate, it’s just a difference in when they started the process.
My nasty inner cynic also wants to ask: does “adjusted to academic life” mean “got used to sitting quietly, quelling their urge to play, learning to please the teacher, and following instructions”? Because if that’s the case, is that really what we think is appropriate for a four-year-old?
  • Early childhood programs that help compensate children for difficult home and community environments and that support parents to work or upgrade their job skills are highly effective at reducing the rate and depth of family poverty.

OK, I buy this. So we’re talking about a segment of the population who can benefit from this. It doesn’t mean that my child or yours will benefit. So why is it mandatory? Also, while full-day kindergarten does allow parents to work longer hours, how exactly does it support them to upgrade their job skills? That one seems like a red herring.

  • A recent study from Harvard University found that students who learned more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college and earn more over time.
Really? No kidding! You know, learning also happens at home, from the richness of the parents’ vocabulary to the availability of books, and those things (and others) probably impact how much the child is able to learn in kindergarten. Not to mention that the kids more likely to go to college and earn more are probably the children of parents who have college degrees and encourage their children to enter professions with the potential for higher earnings.
I’m sorry to have to disappoint the government of Ontario, but they’ve failed to convince me that there’s a long-term benefit to full-day kindergarten that can be absolutely attributed to the kindergarten program itself. Nice try, Ministry of Education, but don’t give up your day job.
Oh, wait, this is their day job. Crap.