Preschool primer

Education options for your child, from kindergarten to montessori

Confused by the education options for your preschooler? Would Montessori and its philosophy of the child as a whole be best for your family? Or are you leaning towards French immersion (which also concerns you because you don’t speak much French yourselves)? What about tried-and-true kindergarten-what does it offer your child?

The choices for early learning of our children are many, and the decision comes down to much more than simply the school’s curriculum. The school’s learning philosophy, your family values, and household’s financial standing are all factors working their way into the decision. If you’re confused, read on to find out the differences between four early learning programs, which could help your decision.

French as a second language programs/French immersion

The program Immersion starts as early as junior kindergarten and is conducted in 100 per cent French. “The children use only the French they’re taught, so a lot of the interaction is the children speaking English to make themselves understood but the teacher’s response would be in French,” explains Paul Leclerc, a Toronto-based instructional leader with the program at the Toronto District School Board. (Note: French immersion involves 100 per cent French in the classroom until grade four, at which grade an hour of English a day is introduced.

The curriculum is the same as the kindergarten program, and parents are encouraged to read at home with their children in their first language and English, so that other language skills don’t drop off. As for homework, fear not non-French-speaking parents. “Teachers give the students enough support to do the homework at home,” assures Leclerc. “Whatever is done at home is not new—it’s an extension of what’s done in class.”

Is it for us? Is learning a second language, or being open to different cultures important to your family? If so, immersion might be for your child. These early years are ideal ones to teach children a second language—but keep in mind, in later grades, children need to work harder to maintain the language skills. Children are also not asked to leave the program if their skills are under par, or if a learning disability is identified.

Anything else? If you’re truly concerned about whether you can support your child’s new found language skills at home, check out Canadian Parents for French (www.cpf.ca). For a $25 membership, you can access additional teaching materials.

Where can I find out more? Check out the school board’s site at www.tdsb.on.ca for an early immersion school near you. Information sessions generally take place in January, and applications are due by mid-February for the coming year.

Kindergaten

The program The Toronto District School Board’s kindergarten program is a two-year, half-day one divided into junior and senior kindergartens. In those two years, five areas of learning are focused on: language, math, science and technology, the arts and personal and social development. “They learn through active exploration and play which helps them problem solve,” says Lynn Blanch, program coordinator for TDSB’s early years program. “And they learn through inquiry—young children ask lots of questions and we have to build on that curiosity. What we provide through the classrooms are opportunities for them to do that—to go outside and look for creatures, or bringing snow inside and ask them what they think will happen with it inside. What you really want are children with the mindset to make observations.”

Is it for us? Kindergarten offers a very strong connection to the community, something that’s key for families. “Schools are a part of the local community. So for young children, it’s important to go to school with your friends and for parents, it’s being part of the community,” says Blanch. “When they go to other programs, they travel to those programs.” Many kindergartens also offer childcare in the same building.

Anything else? Kindergarten programs may have higher student-teacher ratios. “If parents are looking for a lower child-adult ratio, there may be programs that offer that,” says Blanch. “In kindergarten, it varies. We could have classrooms with 18 or it could be 27. Other programs are able to determine their exact numbers, while we have a threshold.”

Where can I find out more? www.tdsb.on.ca–click on kindergarten. The “Welcome to Kindergarten” program walks parents through the program more thoroughly, and there’s also a kindergarten prep sheet for parents.

Montessori

The program The Montessori program was founded in 1907 by Italy’s first female physician, Dr. Maria Montessori. Teaching methods are grounded in her observations of children learning and playing—and today is emphasizes that children should learn with all five senses, and at appropriate levels and times. “The program really encourages children to be independent, so as they learn to explore independently, they become confident and develop the skills to allow them to be more independent,” says Katherine Poyntz, executive director of the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators based in Toronto. “The philosophy also looks at how children become adults, how they develop to their full potential.”

And all activities in Montessori are referred to as work. “It’s a more respectful term. But that doesn’t mean we disregard play as unimportant, but it is the work,” says Poyntz. “They are working on becoming the developed individual, and what they do are meaningful tasks.” Tasks involve setting the table for example for snack time with real cutlery and china, designed to “engage the child.” (Note: no plastic toys are used in Montessori).

Is it for us? If you don’t favour order and structure, Montessori might not be for you. “There’s a strong sense of order in our classrooms and some people find that constraining,” says Poyntz. And parents truly need to be open to different ways of learning—Montessori teaches writing before reading for example, with the idea that learning to write helps children express themselves and develop their reading.
Montessori systems also require a financial commitment, but the fees vary widely (see CCMA site for a fee schedule at a school near you).

Anything else? Classrooms are of mixed ages—generally 0-3, 3-6, 6-9 and so forth to encourage learning from older children. “It’s designed so the children become a community,” says Poyntz “None of them are really doing the same thing, but it allows for individual work as well as small group work, especially in the younger years.”

Where can I find out more? www.ccma.ca/–the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators connects you with schools and offers in-depth information about their learning system, fees, and registration dates.

Waldorf

The program The right thing at the right time—that’s the theory behind the Waldorf education system, founded in the early 1900s Austrian anthroposophicalist Rudolph Steiner. “Rudolph Steiner focused on the development of the whole human being,” says Todd Royer, faculty chair of the Toronto Waldorf School in Thornhill, Ont. “So when we talked about the right thing at the right time, we’re talking about what is right for the whole being. There are so many stresses and pressures on children nowadays that in our society as a whole, children are meeting pressures they haven’t met before and they’re being pushed to overachieve. We believe in children having a childhood and central to that is play.”

The system, a worldwide education program, begins with a parents and tots program and continues right up to grade 12. And the classrooms are notably different too—rather than the big schoolroom set up, they’re cozy, home-like environment.

Is it for us? If you’re a big believer in nailing down the ABCs before the age of four, this might not be for you. “You won’t find us encroaching on this important time with academic work,” says Royer. “People who are looking for computers in early childhood would not go here. Our view on that is the best thing a child can do with a computer is play with the box that it came in.”

The program also takes a financial commitment—the parents and tots program costs roughly $1,600/year and the nursery program (three days/week) is $3,000. Once they reach kindergarten, the cost rises to an estimated $5,000/week.

Anything else? The learning is truly hands on. Children learn to knit, help bake bread and pick flowers. “Our teachers live the language of childhood. They don’t you tell you to get out of the mud. They help you build the mud and get more mud,” says Royer.

Where can I find out more? waldorf.ca–the site for Waldorf Education in Canada. Educational meetings to inform parents are held monthly. Spaces generally open in March for the following year.