Douglas King, Courtesy of the Island, 15 December 2010
The way to judge a good pre-school is to arrive unannounced. If you are invited to special open days, then be aware that what you see maybe is not what you get, and no doubt everything will have been organized several weeks ahead to impress visitors. However, the director at Jarjums pre-school in Kandy keeps an open house and parents and prospective parents are can visit any school day without appointment. Recently, I decided to spend two full mornings at this school to make my own judgement as to quality. So many pre-schools I have seen are either little more than play groups, and often very poor ones at that, or seek to imitate the work that should begin in grade one where children are force fed a diet of letters, numbers and nursery rhymes with only a little time reserved for beneficial child-centered activities.
Although only a short distance from Kandy centre, Jarjums is located in a forest conservation area free from noise and pollution. “Monkeys can be a nuisance” says Director Mrs. Indira Unamboowe, but generally are kept at bay by her dog. The natural sounds and sights of birds in the surrounding forest is a welcome change from the traffic and crowded streets only minutes away.
Whereas most pre-schools have conventional swings, slides and seesaws, Jarjums prefers to provide tyre swings that move in all directions, an elevated playhouse with veranda, climbing frames that can be changed to provide different challenges, and opportunities to experiment using a big sand trough and large bowls for water play as well as bats, large balls, tyres and hoops. When I visited several children on the open ground by the school were driving cars, riding trikes, and pushing scooters along with their feet.. The forty children from 2 1/2 to 5 years are looked after by a teaching staff of five allowing for many small group activities. How refreshing not to see walls covered with commercial educational posters or 20 identical examples of art or craft, with much of the drawing and cutting done by teachers. Instead, the walls reflect 100% children’s work, every one different, where process is more important than a perfect product. Its very impressive to see the quiet room and several hundred books displayed for children to choose from, often while listening to calming music.
Just looking around and you can see that every child, sometimes on their own or in small groups, is actively engaged. “We encourage self-direction and responsibility” one of the teachers told me. I watched a little boy, not even three years old replacing a large wood puzzle on a low shelf and choosing another. There seemed to be a wide assortment of interesting materials for children to select, rather than the plain wood and rather uninteresting conventional equipment so admired by Montessori schools. The building area has not only real wooden blocks in different sizes but large and small Lego, various sturdy toy vehicles and even a train set for children to construct a railway line and drive the model trains around. Just watching girls and boys constructively playing together, using both Sinhala and English is probably the greatest value they acquire at this age.
I felt I had to ask whether children are prepared for entry into grade one. “We don’t expect every child to learn to read” Mrs. Unamboowe explained, “but many children by the time they leave are able to read simple words and sentences, and can write English neatly” she added. “We think its more important to create a love of reading and writing and we do this in many enjoyable and creative ways rather than using a series of work books”. I was reminded of my visit to another large pre-school a few days previously where every child had ten different work books all neatly stacked on a high shelf. I must admit that I was dubious of the claim that many do learn to read and write. This should not be the aim of a pre-school, but nevertheless many parents expect it. I wrote a simple sentence of 6 words on a piece of paper and asked several older children to read it. One or two needed a some prompting but others read it without difficulty. The school also has a play shop complete with scales and real money. Most of the items (empty packets stuffed with paper) were marked at low prices reminiscent of 20 years ago. Two girls were shopping and filling their bags and paying with real coins. I bought a Cloggard toothpaste for eight rupees and asked one of the girls to give me sufficient coins. I received a five and three ones. Very impressive.
The daily routine includes a Circle Time where children share in talking, listening, poems and looking at interesting things. English is not taught as a language but is part of many activities and children seem to absorb the language. “Most don’t come from English speaking homes” said one teacher, “but they pick up the language so quickly and surprise their parents”. There’s lots of singing and dancing, as well as physical activities that includes a trampoline and many outdoor games to develop physical skills. Nutrition is not overlooked and cooking and food activities to encourages healthy eating often take place. There is an individuality I see at this school that makes it so rewarding. No uniforms, and rigid school times. From 7am onwards children begin to arrive and though by 12am. most have left, there are still several playing for up to an hour until their parents arrive.
Why the name Jarjums? The Director qualified and taught in Australia for many years and chose an Aboriginal title for her school. I thought so much better than the rather insipid names so often seen such as ‘Little Angels nursery” or “Kiddies College” just to name a few. The school sends parents an attractive newsletter every term and has its own Youtube site called jarjumsinkandy which displays over 50 videos so parents can see what their children are doing. Several days later I opened the Youtube site on my laptop. What I saw in two days was just the tip of the iceberg. It was remarkable that so many exciting and interesting activities take place and no wonder the school is so popular. Many other pre-schools charge double the monthly Jarjums fees as well as an admission charge. “I’m more concerned with education and children than making a lot of money” Mrs. Unamboowe admitted. I understand why so many parents think highly of this school located by the forest. It should serve as a positive example to thousands of other pre-schools just what Early Childhood Education is all about. There may be many preschools that claim academic success and English medium but in Jarjums I have found an Early Childhood Education Centre that can be proud of its ability to give children the experiences that are truly in keeping with the best practice.
Douglas King is an Educational Advisor specializing in English and Early Childhood Education. He has no financial interest in Jarjums but sees it as a model for many to copy. Douglasking1939@yahoo.com