Learning without the books

October 15, 2010
brightly colored painting smocks hanging on pegs

Motivating young learners using all the senses

Most of my friends whose children attend Czech mateřská škola (pre-school) or školka, as it is informally called, laud the system for its low cost and correspondingly high quality of childcare. For approximately CZK 800 to 1400 a month, a child can attend a state supported preschool; the cost is less if parents qualify for additional state support. Each classroom has around 24 children who are under the supervision of one or two teachers and possibly an aide.

In the Czech Republic, školka is often viewed as a place for learning life’s fundamentals, rather than an institute for learning your ABC’s. When I ask Anna Lee and Oliver what they did in školka on any given day, they may tell me about the walk they took through the village or show me the hard candy they got for distributing toothpaste to the other children. The other day Anna told me about finger and tongue exercises they did to warm-up in the morning. I know they play games and color pictures and at least twice a month they have a cultural event, like a theater show or a circus, but as far as sitting at a desk and learning how to write their name or count, these “school” skills are left for the první třída (first grade).

A typical daily morning routine at školka includes the arrival: dressing in bačkůry (slippers) and inside clothes and greeting the teacher with a proper handshake, art time or free play, eating a mid-morning snack, going outdoors, having circle time, eating lunch and brushing teeth. Departure after lunch means dressing in outdoor clothes and shoes and another formal handshake with the teacher. For children whose parents still collect state childcare payments (typical from birth up to four years), school ends after lunch. For children whose parents work, there is rest time and free play or an extra activity like English, drawing or ceramics in the afternoon.

In the two years that Anna’s attended školka, I’ve watched her independence flourish as she’s mastered fundamental skills like cutting her food with a knife, carrying her plate to the sink or learning to tie her shoes (and those of friends) because she doesn’t want the teacher to fuss that she has so many shoes to tie. In the few months that Oliver has been going to the same school, I’ve also watched him mature in skills that I didn’t even know were lacking, like learning to blow his food to cool it down, to put on his shoes by himself and, of course, to make new friends in a group setting.

I always admire the Czech preschools’ efforts to turn out well-mannered, orderly little citizens. Still, I’ve found myself wishing at times this fall that my children might get some kind of structured early-learning stimulation (i.e. learning to read) that I hear about from my friends whose children attend the private British or American preschools in Prague. Although the British educational system takes the prize for starting its full primary education at the ripe age of 4, the American-styled preschools I know in Prague also teach letters and numbers to children from age 4.

When talking a few weeks ago with my friend whose children attend a British international school in Prague, I was surprised to learn that her daughter’s class (which is comprised of kids the same age as mine) are already reading on their own. When my friend told me that her older daughter, who’s less than a year older than Anna, is reading Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series by herself, I wanted to cry. Although I know that every child is unique and develops at his own pace, in my heart, I also know that Anna Lee would likely be further along in her reading efforts, if like my friend’s daughters, she was taught skills like letter recognition or phonics in preschool.

I vowed to work harder with the kindergarten material I had from the US and break out the ABC flash cards to drum them into Anna’s head until she’d finally know them without mistake. To further my despair, my mother passed along news that a family friend’s grandson, who is Oliver’s age, already knows his letters and corresponding sounds. I thought, geez, I’d better start my get-book-smart-quick course with both of them. I considered propping Sammy up and flashing the cards in front of his face, too, just to preempt him from falling behind.

As luck would have it, the kids were saved from my flashcard madness and ultra-mom competitiveness a few days later when Anna Lee came bounding in the house after školka reciting the following říkanka (riddle):

Kaštánku, kaštánku počkej tu na mě, zvednu tě ze země, dám do své dlaně, pěkně se ohřeješ, zaleskneš za krátko, doma si z tebe udělám zvířátko.

The riddle, Anna explained, is about a chestnut that a little child picks up from the ground, puts in her palm and takes home to let it warm up and shine to make into an animal. The poem touched home because we’ve been out gathering chestnuts several times this fall. It’s a typical autumn activity that Czech kids love and one that Radek fondly remembers from his childhood. Anna and Radek used the chestnuts we found to make an autumn kite for her preschool’s autumn harvest celebration.

When I asked Anna how she learned the poem, she told me that she learned it at circle time when her teacher recited it to them. I was duly impressed that she remembered it word for word, and I told her so. She beamed and the stress of our flash-card episode faded. She asked me if I wanted to hear another riddle about autumn and recited the following:

Přišel podzim do zahrady, barvy na něj mamíchá, konec léta je tu děti,
podzimní už přišel čas, listy k zemi s větrem letí, plno zlata je tu zas.

This one was harder for Anna to translate but she knew it was about autumn coming to the garden, leaves changing colors and falling to the ground and the end of the summer. Once again I was impressed that she could remember the riddle days after she’d learned it, and it opened my eyes to the other types of learning that Czech preschools excel in. Challenging students’ memories with riddles and seasonal poems is a traditional component of the preschool years. Even the youngest students, like Oliver, are trained to sing seasonal songs and recite short poems in a group, which are often performed at the end of the year’s besídka (performance). Last year I remembered thinking that all the group recitation I heard at the besídka was impressive, but a shame to waste time repeating phrases when the kids could have been doing more creative work. However, once I watched Anna Lee recite her riddle for me without any external prompting, I realized what a gift of learning she’d been given.

Listening to Anna, I realized that even within a system that praises group conformity and regularity there can be occasions for individual students to shine. Unlike the memory exercises I remember from grade school which had been mandatory homework, Anna wasn’t forced to remember the riddle, and there was no way for me, as a parent to spur her learning. She performed it because she was challenged by her teacher to remember it, and she took nothing but pleasure in carefully reciting the lines and explaining them to me.

The Czech preschool system doesn’t expect parents to be involved with learning, at least not at this level. I’ve never been asked to help them with memory work, nor have I ever been given much of a progress report on how my kids are doing in preschool. The hands-off approach can be hard, particularly if you don’t know exactly what your kids are doing all morning at preschool. But I’ve learned to presume that they aren’t “just playing” at školka, and even so, through “just playing” there are valuable learning skills to be acquired. As for more structured learning, we’re still doing the ABC flashcards at home, but only at Anna’s request.

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