Playschools have become integral to the education scene even in a Tier-II city like Tiruchi

While it has been a ‘back-to-school’ story for most youngsters in India this week, there is yet another contingent of preschoolers getting ready for formal education.

Whether they seek to recreate the reassuring ambience of home or give harried parents the chance to delegate the job of shaping their child’s early years in a structured manner, playschools have become integral to the education scene even in a Tier-II city like Tiruchi.

Schools of repute have added to the ‘gold rush’ by insisting that all pre-kindergarten children should come with preschool/playschool ‘experience’.

In a way, the proliferation of preschools in the residential areas of Tiruchi is indicative of a more educated and affluent base of parents who want to give their children a head start in the school admission race. In Thillai Nagar alone, for instance, there are nearly 11 preschools, many of them backed by franchises based in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore.

Some, like the locally owned and managed Butterflies Play School – The Fun House, also offer day-care services for pre-preschool toddlers from 9 a.m. to 7.30 p.m.

The Play Group is for children just a little over 2 years, and the activities are geared towards play-way instruction, with no writing tasks.

Playschool kids get a taste of school life with activities like field trips and ‘celebrations’ of days themed around colours, festivals and so on.

“Parents don’t have the time to interact with their children these days because they are both office-goers,” says Gokulavalli, a Montessori teacher at Butterflies who is also a trained clinical psychologist. “Even when one parent is staying at home, the most common complaint at the time of admission is that the kids are not speaking to them. Actually this is because parents are not speaking to their children, and not even respecting them as individuals. In those days, grandparents used to be part of the family, and in charge of babycare, so speech impediments were rare,” she adds. “Nowadays parents prefer their kids to be in a playschool rather than with grandparents.”

Parents sometimes hide their child’s learning/development disorders at the time of admission, she says, which only delays corrective measures.

“We accept autistic children who have attended a special school and are in the process of transitioning to a mainstream institution,” says Gokulavalli, “but we maintain different timings for them.”

For Ayesha Nawaz, Centre Head, Kids Campus International Pre-School, being part of the Bangalore-based franchise has been key to attracting the parents of preschoolers in the Puthur area.

Opened in 2013, the playschool, which follows the Cambridge Pre-School syllabus, had 40 enrolments in the inaugural year. The partners are also mulling a daycare facility for below school-age tots.

“Playschool learning is replacing the traditional home-based experience,” says Ayesha.

“Earlier, children used to be taught the basics like colours and vegetables, but parents would often overlook the mistakes they made. Our playschool teaches the kids a standard way of learning without any pressure.”

Both Butterflies and Kids Campus require their teachers to be graduates, though in the end, inter-personal skills are always prioritised.

“It’s important for staff to be patient and caring with such young children,” says Ayesha.

“Rather than educational background, we look for patient staff,” agrees Gokulavalli. “Some of our kids are really attached to their caretakers. Often it is daycare staff who see a baby’s first steps and hear their first words rather than the parents.”

Playschool is also becoming the place to teach kids about basic life skills like toilet usage, says Ayesha.

“Most of the children we have seen are still in diapers even beyond the age of 2 years. We teach them how to use the toilet, and also how to brush their teeth. These habits used to be traditionally learned at home, but parents have no time these days.”

For individual attention, the staff-to-student ratio is kept small, at around one teacher per six or seven pupils.

“Generally most of our children have highly educated parents, but we do get an idea about their background during admission time,” says Ayesha. “If there is a child whose parent who lacks the literacy skills to help out with the home-work, our teachers give them more time to finish the tasks during school hours.”

While some may rue the passing of a more laidback approach to early childhood years, there are many who vouch for the strong foundation that preschoolers are getting through playschools. “Actually teachers can learn a lot from today’s students,” says Linda Peppin, a veteran teacher who has served St. Joseph’s Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School since 1973.

Though she has retired, Mrs. Peppin still helps out with junior-level children at the school.

She feels today’s kids are more mature and advanced in most aspects of school life, and “we should not discourage them from adapting to the new ways of learning and technology.”

“Your home is your first school,” she says, “so parents should teach their children basics like personal hygiene and table manners. But these days not many parents are home-oriented, or health-conscious. Playschools can recreate the ideal home atmosphere.”

Submissive behaviour can no longer be expected from children these days because they have never heard ‘no’ from their parents, says Mrs. Peppin. “But they are so clever with technology. They are not inattentive in class. Actually it is us grown-ups who have to update ourselves to cater to their tastes.”