In the past few days, there have been three articles in the British press about the opening of our new nursery in London, all of them referring to us as a 'nursery for tiger mums.'
While I’m pleasantly surprised by the amount of media attention the mere opening of a nursery doing something slightly different from the usual has managed to attract in London, the tone and tenor of the articles and the coverage indicates to me that there is a big debate going on in the UK with regards to what children should (or should not) be doing in the early years – in essence, what’s the ‘right’ early years learning philosophy. I would like to wade into that debate, then, and explain a little bit about where we come from and why we think what we do makes sense – for parents and children. It’s also interesting that a recent survey has suggested that some parents think that children are not learning enough at their nurseries in England!
First up, a few clarifications for anyone who has read those articles. One, we don’t cater to any ‘specific’ kind of parent. In our schools worldwide, we have parents of all nationalities (35 in our Dubai centre alone) with varying backgrounds and philosophies of child-rearing. And they’re all very happy with the service we provide. We have parents who want their children to be exposed to all the different programs that we provide, and we also have parents who opt out of several of the programs. Two, as a matter of record, we don’t actually cater to tech magnates in Silicon Valley (or anywhere). In Silicon Valley, the chain grew out of catering to middle and upper-middle level executives in the tech industry (not the CEOs). Our parents come from all walks of life and all professions, depending on the local community we’re servicing. Three, we don’t ‘teach’ children art appreciation when they can sit up (that’s silly). But as you can see from these pictures, our art program is a whole lot of fun for the children and they do get to try out various styles of creating art.
Coming to the main point, then – is it all too much? I think the authors of the articles either didn’t bother to find out, or omitted to mention that almost everything we do is play-based, and relies on utilizing the natural curiosity of children. We all know children learn best through play (and by the way, adults do too!). What makes us different, and the reason why we can focus on monitoring the child’s development across several different areas is that we ensure that the children are exposed to games, toys and learning environments that give rise to specific learning opportunities (called ‘provocations’ in the Reggio approach to early learning), which are then used by the teachers to enhance the child’s learning. We ensure that these ‘provocations’ are curated so that the skills we’re trying to develop through our curriculum have the best chance of developing, without the children even realizing it – they’re just playing. As an example, a natural question of “where does rain come from” from a 4-year-old will lead to a science experiment on evaporation, done by the children, which the entire group learns from. Or a session of messy play with mud, water and sand (yes, our kids do muck around – quite a lot actually), is an opportunity for the children to learn texture, density, porousness and develop the fine motor skills required for writing. How do we build basic skills for coding and logical thinking? Through puzzles and a series of games designed to provoke simple “if-then-else” thinking (and more), so that by the time children are 4, they are able to (and enthusiastic about) using simple coding apps. Same with mathematics, and each of the other aspects of our program. Learning is through a series of experiments, games, trial and error, just as it should be in life. What we do differently is that we take the learning process of each child as an individual journey, and we take it seriously.
Are our children at one or two grade levels higher than peers when they enter primary school? Usually – if they’ve been with us for any length of time. Why? Because we ensure that children learn as much as they can, using their own natural instincts, curiosity and initiative, while they’re with us. And as it turns out, children can actually learn a lot in the right environment and with the right provision and teaching. And no, they’re not under any pressure to learn – learning is natural, fun and instinctive. Just as it should be.
And yes, we do offer Mandarin Chinese, because we believe that the more languages children are exposed to at a young age, the better it is for their cognitive development (this has been proven by research). Besides, like it or not, it is one of the languages of the future. We also offer French in London, Arabic in Dubai, Hindi in India and Bahasa in Malaysia. Several of our children grow up learning three or more languages in the multicultural cities we operate in, and are pretty proficient at them. So no, it’s not really all too much for the children at all. Each child has an individualized plan that is agreed with the parents and with their inputs, and we monitor the progress.
I’d like to thank Ben Machell of the Times for highlighting our values program – it really is one of the core parts of our offering, and yes, the right values – as each parent knows – need to and can be inculcated in children, and we do that all the time.
Are we data driven? Of course, we are! Without observation, recording and evaluation, it would be impossible for us to do what’s best for each child and parent. For example, if we have a child who has a difficulty in making friends, or playing with other kids (my daughter was like that when she was three, for example), we observe it, record it, and have a discussion with the parents. If we and the parents jointly feel that something needs to be done about it, then we try and do things to enable the child to participate more in group activities and so on, and then observe (and record the progress). Without data, it’s impossible for us to see whether we’re doing a good enough job or not.
We open for tours in London in mid-April. For anyone curious, and all the journalists who have graciously written about us, I’d like to invite you for a tour and meet the staff and learn more. And bring your tots around. Usually, children refuse to leave any of our schools once they enter. I’m sure yours will be no different!