When you are sending your pre-schooler off to school, and plunking down the equivalent of university tuition for the privilege, you might be wondering if the education of a 3-year-old is worth that kind of money. In Chinese culture, the focus on academics begins very early, partly due to the competitive nature of higher education and all its associations with advancing the standard of living. Here in Beijing, the scope of the options – international schools, local kindergartens, or local schools with international flavor – create a wide array of choices when looking for the right school.
There are so many different learning styles and programs: Montessori, Reggio Emilia, bilingual, Chinese traditional kindergarten. When I first arrived here, I had no idea what these terms meant. Wasn’t pre-school purely for socialization with other children? While socialization is indeed one of the most important aspects, these play-based learning environments help develop many other important characteristics, such as independence and confidence. Pre-school education also prepares a child for primary school, and can nurture a lifelong love of learning.
Importance of Childhood Education
Paula Zhou, Head of School at The Children’s House Montessori Kindergarten, believes that the first six years of a child’s life is critical to personality development. Instilling confidence, independence and a love of learning create the foundation for being good citizens in the world, she says. “[Early Childhood Education] cannot just be about academics. A more holistic approach to developing children to take care of themselves, help others and take care of their environment creates the foundation on which academics come so easily. Later, it doesn’t matter what professor they have, their love of learning and confidence will allow them to succeed wherever they are.”
Cheryl Smith, head of ECE at Yew Chung International School, believes that beginning school at an early age helps the child separate from the family in a relaxed environment and prepares children for Year 1 and later. “Early Childhood programs complement and work alongside parents in giving children a well-rounded education experience,” she notes.
Tamara Sharp’s three-year-old son, Harry, goes to Yew Chung International School. At 2, Harry was an advanced child, speaking articulately. Sharp wanted to broaden his horizons, as well as avoid having his ayi spoil him. Although she herself had dreaded school as a child, and feared Harry would have a similar experience, she says, “He just blossomed. Going to school really developed his self-esteem, confidence and independence.”
Aside from the larger international schools, there are local Chinese kindergartens and locally run multicultural schools. Local Chinese kindergartens may be difficult to find and require a Chinese-speaker to arrange admission. There are private kindergartens as well as kindergartens attached to primary schools. Some programs require an adult to accompany the child and are more play- and song-based, while others are more academic-based. As the children get closer to primary school age, the academic focus intensifies.
Sara Manley, an Australian mother of two, sends her 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Persie, to a local Chinese kindergarten near her house in the CBD. Persie goes three mornings a week, accompanied by her ayi. Manley says, “It’s a good social outlet for her. She comes home happy and singing songs from the classes.” She notes that her husband’s company will pay school fees, but only for compulsory education, which in Australia does not include preschool. Manley was able to find the school through word-of-mouth, from another expat neighbor who sends her son there. She pays RMB 600 for 10 sessions.
Locally run multicultural schools, an option for parents who are hesitant to send children to local kindergarten and want to avoid the fees of expensive international schools, have English or bilingual programs and often cost about half (or less) of that of the international schools. Maggie Hu, head of Harvest Kindergarten, says that because their school is a mix of foreigners and Chinese, it is a balancing act to meet the needs of parents requesting more academic learning and others wanting children to have a fun, play- and game-based learning experience. A compromise is reached by using play, games, and art, as well as giving homework like coloring or number matching.
Bilingual programs at the preschool level involve English and Chinese spoken in the class by teachers or aides who are native speakers. Preschoolers pick up language very easily and naturally, especially when conversing and interacting with a native speaker. At this stage, most learning comes from singing songs and listening to stories. Formal language lessons normally come at later stages. Smith says that having two fully qualified teachers creates a learning environment where children can absorb language and lays a foundation for becoming bilingual adults.
Montessori or Traditional
In any preschool search, you will undoubtedly encounter a range of Montessori-based teaching options. The Montessori Method is based on the work and research of Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician whose observations and work (in the early 1900s) with children resulted in a philosophy of education where children are encouraged to learn from a prepared environment. This environment encourages self-motivation and independent learning that focuses on practical life activities, the senses, language, mathematics, culture and creativity.
Every Montessori school has its own interpretations of this philosophy and how its own routine and structure shape the school day. Most, however, include practical life activities such as setting the table, clearing up your dishes, taking out and putting away your own work, as well as developing grace and courtesy.
In this self-directed learning environment, the use of specialized concrete materials also facilitates learning writing, reading and mathematics. Elena Lukyanets’ son, who just moved from a Montessori environment to the Reception class at the British School, is academically prepared for the transition. (Other schools that offer the Montessori method include Etonkids and the Family Learning House.)
“When you think of Montessori, you think they are just playing, but he actually can read and write pretty well,” Lukyanet says. For instance, younger children build reading, writing and mathematics skills with hands-on learning – they may use a moveable alphabet to spell out words matching a picture of an animal or abacus-like instruments to count from 0-10,000.
The difference from traditional teaching lies in the child-led nature, as opposed to teacher-led structure, but instead of complete free play, children are provided with specialized materials with a specific teaching purpose. Zhou notes that while Montessori is play-based, complete free play is not ideal. “Children have so many sensitive periods where concepts are absorbed. If they have to be ‘learned’ later, it is much more work,” she says.
Reggio Emilia and Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory have similar philosophies that include independent work, integrated education areas and stations for children to initiate their own play and develop their fine and large motor skills, with teachers co-exploring and guiding. Each school has their own approach to teaching children and early-learners with varying degrees of teacher guidance and play. Visiting schools and observing their particular approach is the best way to determine if their method of teaching is right for you and your child.
Advice on Choosing a School
With the dizzying array of school options available, it is possible to find the right school for your needs and budget. Naturally you’ll want to select a school that is convenient to get to from your home. Teacher turnover and the support of the administration for the teachers are also important considerations.
All of the administrators I spoke with said it is most important to find a school where you and your child feel safe and comfortable and has a warm and friendly environment. No matter which school your child attends, know that preschool prepares your child for a lifetime of learning and allows for a smoother transition from home into a larger learning environment. So your child’s college fund, I mean, preschool tuition, will be money well spent.