It is not very uncommon to see little children as young as three, sometimes even less being bundled off to schools. The cut off age where a child goes to school has drastically gone down. Even some time back the lower age limit hovered around 4-5 years, even more in certain places. Today children as young as 2 years are sent off to schools that promise positive interventions in a child’s mental growth at that stage. These schools are called ‘play schools’ and are precursors to nursery schools. Hence they are often termed Pre-nursery or Montessori schools.
'Play School’ is a phenomenon that has gripped most societies across the world in the past few years. The reasons for it are several; primary among these is the break down of traditional society with its close knit familial bonds. In the absence of these support groups, alternate families have been set up. Play Schools are one such ‘alternate family’ a child has during the formative years these days; the others in this chain being day care centres, crèches and even elementary schools. Children go to these set ups and learn many things which stand him in good stead in the later stages of schooling. It also is his first step towards becoming an independent social being.
 Play Schools- Factored By Changing Mindsets
Education and access to increased resources have changed the mind set of the parents too who are not unwilling to let their wards venture out in to the world. They also understand and respect the growing need and demands of children to have space, companionship relationship with their peers, a place to express themselves freely and also learn certain skills that goes with their level of development. Play schools, with their modules that are suited to meet these needs of a child are a welcome proposition, both for parents as well as children.
Ideally a play school consists of 10 -12 children under the supervision of a single teacher. However the big players in the play School market in India like Mothers Pride, Kid Zee, Shemrock, Euro Kids, Kangaroo Kids etc. and those across the World like Maple Bear, Kangaroo World, Little Angels etc. have larger set ups that easily accommodate more than a 100 children. The student to teacher ratio however remains 1:10 which is indeed gratifying because little children staying outside their homes for the first time need a lot of careful handling, love, attention and time.
 Basic Understanding of the Age Group
“…there is a sensible way in treating children. Treat them as though they were young adults…let your behaviour always be objective and kindly firm…” (John. B. Watson, from his book Psychological Care of Infant and Child, 1928).
“…as for teaching children concepts that they have not attained in their spontaneous development, it is comparatively useless… Remember…that each time one prematuredly teaches a child something he could have discovered for himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely. (Jean Piaget, from a 1970 interview in Psychology Today, also in a 1970 article, “Piaget’s Theory)'
The above two opinions mirror a cascade of varied opinions about the age group between 2-6 years and ways to handle them. Other psychologists who have extensively contributed to the understanding of this age group, especially the pattern of development are Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Rollo May etc. Together they have pioneered a broad area of study called Developmental Psychology which essentially gives an insight on the behavioural pattern during the early years that is from infancy up to early childhood which is between 7-12years. This has been particularly useful fro understanding of behaviour in the formative years and also for child rearing.
The age between 2 – 6 years tracks a number of important changes; the foremost among these are increased cognitive capacity. Eminent psychologist Piaget named this stage ‘Preoperational Stage’ as the cognitive acquirements at this stage was truly a precursor to the logical operations that begin in early childhood and continue to grow in the adult life. These logical operations contribute to logical reasoning capabilities, adaptive skills, ability to learn from experience and apply it to other situations, language processing capabilities and all such cognitive skills that make a person a social being.
The concept of identity also starts forming at this stage which makes it an important milestone for development. Children start thinking about their gender, their appearance and all of this contributes to a more personalized concept of identity called Self Concept.
 Preoperational Thought
Another important development is the growth of Preoperational Thought which makes it possible for a child of two years to form mental symbols to represent events or even thoughts. This is what makes them imitate or represent events or things witnessed or learnt in its more or less exact form even after sometime that the event has passed. This makes them receptive to events and humans and interactive social creatures.
This stage also marks the onset of reasoning which is still very primitive and inadequate and is more of a Transductive Reasoning which means when they see one thing of a particular kind; they apply the characteristics of that object to most other objects. For example if they see a red apple which is a fruit they might conclude that red means apple. And yet children at this stage are able to spot gaps in their reasoning and are open to alterations.
They are also unable to understand cause-effect relationships very well. They view unrelated objects and events are bound by a cause effect chain. This makes their reasoning slightly immature and inadequate. However what adults think is play is often a child very hard at work and reasoning for a child comes with a lot of effort, gaps, mistakes notwithstanding.
 Acquisition of language
The most important development is by far the acquisition of language which helps in acquiring mature thoughts Noam Chomsky (1968) propounded that there was a universal rule in language acquisition that children across the world adhered to. This was mostly an inborn device and proceeded in steps and helped in acquiring any language. This sequence of language development process that any child undergoes helps him in mastering the syntax of that language. The language development begins from age 1 and children are able to speak to their care givers in their own private language. By and by with imitative learning and modeling, children pick up language and its nuances.
The child also begins his first step in becoming a self reliant social being and the dependence on the parents starts becoming less. Parents also become teachers or enforcers in teaching their child toilet training (which happens in this stage) and so parents transform from nurturers to active agents of the socialization process. They teach the child lessons in manners, what he should do if people give him a chocolate, how to eat properly at the table so on and so forth.
 Peer groups and play
Peer groups and play assumes a whole new meaning at this time and the child is ready at this stage to move out of his primary environment. Relationships with parents are rivaled by their peers, something that is a continuous feature through a large part of their lives till adulthood.
The kind of play a child engages in also changes at this time. From solitary play, the child moves to ‘parallel play’ where he plays with the same toys with another child but with hardly any interactions.
This is gradually shifted to co-operative play where children interact and depend on each other. This is also a time when children engage in role playing behaviour, especially those which explore adult relationships. Pretend playing as ‘Mommy-Daddy’ or ‘Teacher –Teacher’ are games children all over love to play.
Aggression also finds expression in more acceptable ways. Where children of this age group are very aggressive and generally do not see the others point of view, this is mostly due to ‘inadequate reasoning’ as not so much egocentric behaviour. These children are also very helpful, emotional and do not make very lasting relationships. Friendships change by the minute.
 Reasons for Encouraging a Higher Age Limit
The cognitive and social provesses that a child learns during this stage of development is often played out in various social spheres. One of them is schools. In most countries save for a few like India, formal schooling does not begin before 6 years. This ensures that the limitations of preoperational thoughts have been overcome and the child develops what is called the ability to make ‘Concrete Operations’.
Children by early childhood i.e. 5 years upwards also have learnt the principles of reversibility, that things should be seen in relation to another; concepts of mass, area, time, night, day, present, future and many others that require restructured mental configurations. The thinking becomes sharpened, hypothetical situations are understood and reacted to with sense and logic which was absent in the preoperational stage.
Again language development reaches a stage where the child is able to communicate very clearly. Also sensory motor development that is required in reading and writing are in place which makes it easier from concepts of elementary education to be taught.
 Socially approved behaviour
Finally children at this age are trained in socially approved behaviour. Schools usually call for displaying more social than academic skills. This, a child of 6 or 7 is more able to do. Schools phobias and anxieties are not so much in later childhood as is it with children between 2-5 years. In an extreme situation, a child forced to face school at a young age when he is not socially equipped may transfer his school anxiety into ‘social anxiety’ at a later age.
All these reasons put together have led to policy makers in some countries as U.S.A and United Kingdom frame regulations which do not encourage children from going to schools at a very tender age.
 Lower Age Limit As Followed In certain Countries-The Reasons
What are then the reasons why certain countries like India have such policies where the age limit of schooling is very low?
Schooling is there to promote systematic and structured learning. All of this is done is a specific order and is therefore called ‘formal education’. This is in contrast to ‘informal education’ where a child learns concepts in a non-structured, playful way. This involves some amount of vicarious learning and also some amount of modeling. Learning in an informal setting usually happens without the child knowing the rules and regulations. He figures these out later.
In contrast, in a school setting the teacher lays down certain guidelines which are then applied to problem solving. The rule is to progress from ‘general’ to ‘specific’ reasoning. Most schools are able to equip the child with basic problem solving skills and reasoning abilities which they can apply to even unfamiliar problem areas. So the question arises as to which is better, formal or the informal way of learning?
Often the trend in selecting one method over the other is the deciding factor for the need for play schools. For countries in general, and parents in particular, who feel that the formal system is better for the development of the child, especially in terms of his cognitive skills, language proficiencies and social adaptability; play schools provide a good solution. For those who see the merits in a non formal educational system and conform to Piaget’s views on child rearing practices, play schools are inadequate, unnecessary and a system that has no place in a child’s already developing world.
 Disadvantages of Play Schools
Are play schools really a need or is it just another fad that has caught on?
Answers to this question are not simple or straight forward. There are a lot of skeptics who believe that sending the child to school at such a tender age is wholly unnecessary as it does nothing to further his mental growth. Mental growth at this stage develops at a pace and level that is not contingent on inputs got from play schools or for that matter any other source which is structured. Psychologists stress on getting children to learn from their environment and adapt themselves to the various changes happening in and around them. Parents, especially the mother can be a positive influence and role model in this regard and the informal setting of the home gives the child a non threatening place to play and learn in.
The need for sending a child to a play school is also not advocated on the grounds that the child is weaned away from his primary care givers at an age where he ought to be under their loving and tender care and protection. Psychologists caution against this forced weaning away saying that this can have long term consequences for the child mainly in terms of emotional retardation, maladjusted behaviour. The kind of anxiety a child undergoes at this point is called ‘Separation Anxiety’ and a great many disorders in adult life may have its genesis in this separation anxiety. Certain children also exhibit physical signs of distress or psychosomatic disorders and this may require longer time to heal. In fact a child may just get completely averse from school.
Education these days has become a commercial venture. This is evident in the quality of staff involved in imparting education. In such a setting, a child does become literate, but not educated in the real sense of the term. In the formative years, good quality teachers who are sensitive to a child’s unique needs and responsive to his individual growth pattern are required. Play school teachers often fall short on these counts because recruitment procedures of the staff are not strictly regulated. Also the kind of teachers who apply for the job are mostly fresh graduates or domestic engineers who have spare time in their hands and are looking for a way to fill up their hours. Hence it is financial reasons that bring a teacher to these play schools. This severely impacts the overall quality and commitment of the teachers to its little students.
 Benefits of a Play School
Most parents of 2 to 3 year olds are always in the look out for a reputed play school. The number of play schools have increased manifold. This is owing to the fact there are several benefits of a play school. An urban phenomenon like this cannot survive only on grounds that it is fashionable, especially when the consumers (that is the parents who use this kinds of alternate care service) are educated, well informed and not gullible in the least. Thus there must be benefits of sending a child to a play school.
Among the foremost benefit that comes to mind is that the child gets an exposure to other children who form his peers. This is the first step he takes in becoming a social entity. These days most families are opting for a single child. A single child gets all the attention of his parents and does not get too many opportunities to learn appropriate social behaviour. Sharing, caring, making adjustments to others, these are behaviours he picks up when he is exposed to other children in his play group. At home such opportunities rarely arise. Play groups serve as a gentle buffer between the home and socially interactive centres like school. Slowly a child learns to play, share and do things with other children. He makes friends and plays with them for as long as he stays in the play school. All this happens under the gentle guidance and help from the teacher who is in charge. Logically, a play school is the first step towards making a well adjusted human being.
 Disposable income of parents
Secondly parents these days have a lot of disposable income and most of it goes into buying toys, clothes etc, for their children. There are a number of toys that are available in the market these days and to the discerning buyer, the mind boggling array poses serious challenges, not to mention confusion. Most parents do want to buy educational toys; the children have ideas and wished of their own. Which toy best answers both these varied needs a lot of scouring. In general, those toys should be bought that encourage sensory-motor co-ordination. The toys best suited for this age are often those that not only entertain, but are also suited for his age. For example, a gun does entertain a child, but it also inculcates aggression and violence in little children. Again a toy house not only entertains, but also teaches child concepts of a bedroom (somewhere he sleeps in), a kitchen (a place his favourite food is cooked in) and many other similar things. A parent at a single time may not be able to provide the child with all such toys. In such cases, a play school is the perfect place where a child can play with the right kind of toys.
In addition, through ‘guided play’ a child is also equipped with a lot of skills he could well do with in his diurnal life. For example, children could be asked to dress up a doll for school. In playing thus, a child learns to button shirts or dresses, pack a bag, feed the doll, learn about the importance of eating breakfast etc. This learning, called transference learning helps transfer behaviour learnt during play to themselves.
Children are also introduced to simulated exercises where a certain situation is given and the children are asked to respond. This involves a certain amount of play acting which the children enjoy. For example, children are asked to behave as if they are at a good restaurant. Children learn a lot about table manners through this exercise. Such games are rarely played in the house. Mothers running behind her child with food are a very common sight. In a play school children learn to eat, sitting in one place, with their napkins on. They also learn to wash their hands before and after a meal, fold away their napkins and put back tiffin boxes into their own bags.
 Meals on their own
Often play schools provide meals on their own. This gives a child a taste of meals different from what he eats at home. In a group children manage to eat food that he would normally not eat in the house. Hence from the point of view of eating the right food, play schools are a good choice. Most mothers worry about their children’s diet. A play school does take away some of that worry.
Language skills also develop much faster. At home, children mainly communicate in their mother tongue. A good play school encourages children to pick up communication skills in a language spoken by most.
Perhaps the biggest benefit that comes from a play school is the fact that play schools allow for free play. Free play is a concept that is highly recommended by child psychologists for their ability to foster imagination, creativity and relaxation. Free play is an antithesis of guided play. In a typical play school, a certain amount of time is given to free play where a child can choose any toy he wishes to and the teacher goes along with it. For example if a child chooses a train, the teacher might sing a rhyme associated with a train, if the child chooses a set of blocks, the teacher may tell him about colours, shapes and arrangements he can make. All these inputs depend on the child too who is not just a passive participant in this case. The child may also talk of his experiences and the teacher allows him to talk, draw, create, in short express his feelings. This is the most important aspect that a play school has to offer.
Often parents cannot make that much time for their children due to work pressures or the children may not speak up for certain reasons. Free play is a good way of unlocking little minds. Its appeal also lies in the fact that it is agenda less and so completely letting the child be his own self.
Childhood years are vital to a human beings experience in totality. Overloading children with too much, at such an early age often cripples their sense of wonder. Free play in play schools aim to walk a middle path where they endeavor to give the child the best of both worlds.
Learning through play is one of the main aim of all play schools who think that it is never too early for a child to be introduced to concepts. Children do not go to a play school for academic skills. Instead they lean certain nursery rhymes, basic concepts of shape, colour and size in a fun way. They also learn to hold a pencil, draw, colour and thus express themselves. This also helps in their eye-hand co-ordination. Blocks teach the concept of shapes. If done with other children, they learn to work as a team. Puppet shows, story telling again bring out imagination and creativity. Certain chores as putting water from one glass to another, arranging spoons, keeping flowers together in a vase all build motor skills. Finally the child learns to be sociable.
 Play Schools- A Balanced Approach
The growing trend of nuclear families and lack of support systems has led to a host of alternatives that aim at providing a nurturing, home like environment for children. The line up of services in this sector includes play school, day boarding facilities and crèche. These services have been a boon to women who venture out of their homes. Most companies now offer such services to their women employees. In the absence of the mother and grandparents, such arrangements work best for the parents and the children. The parents are assured of a safe and secure environment for their child, a place his needs are looked after, and additionally he gets to learn various things comparable to his age and mental capacity.
These days’ parents are sometimes bulldozed into toeing the path taken by most. In fact all schools do ask at the time of admissions as to what preparatory school the child has been to. Often the kind of pre-school that is chosen, is a pointer to the interest a parent has in his or her child. So sending a child to a branded school may indicate that a parent is interested in the best that the market has to offer. It also is an indicator of the financial capacity of the parent, something most schools wish to know right at the start.
As a business option for women, setting up a play school cum day boarding is indeed becoming a suitable venture. Firstly, this being a business venture, one does not need a fancy degree. Simply a space, capital, time and the energy are enough to start out a play school.
Secondly, a woman is able to take care of her home too if she enters this segment and thirdly, play schools do not require huge amount of start up capital. In fact an educational inclination is all that is required along with a very basic capital. These days’ women entrepreneurs are encouraged a lot by the government and getting loans at a nominal interest rate has become very easy. Hence for women, play schools present an opportunity to financial freedom.
Play schools are thus an option that is truly best left to the parents to decide. The decision is factored by a lot of socio-economic reasons. Play schools are emerging as a huge livelihood opportunity-both directly and indirectly for the women who are welcoming such back up support mechanisms.
Finally parents are faced with a huge dilemma-how much of discipline is good? How much control should they have on the Child? How and when do they take recourse to rewards and punishments? What is the best parenting style they need to adopt? These are questions that rear their heads at this stage of the child’s development and play schools not only provide respite from the daily drudgery, but they also in a way bring in some amount of discipline in a child’s diurnal life.