To School or Not to School?
We've always thought that we would home-school our children on the assumption that one on one individual attention is always the best approach to a child's education. As well-educated and conscientious parents, we've assumed that we ourselves would be best placed to provide a stimulating and nurturing educational environment though a variety of hands-on activities, travel and interaction with people of all ages.
As Riker grows however, and his very social personality begins to shine though, we've started to wonder whether he wouldn't benefit from an engaging classroom situation as long as it meets the criteria outlined in A Preschool Primer. As with so many other aspects of parenting, we're learning how to take cues from our child about what his needs are, as opposed to how we thought things were going to be.
In Canberra (and especially in the Inner North), we're very fortunate to have a selection of well regarded schools on our doorstep. Preschool begins at age four, but given the waiting lists associated with most child care centers and some schools, I set to researching our options early on.
The Reggio Emilia Approach
One of the educational philosophies mentioned by my early childhood expert friend was an approach called Reggio Emilia. It was founded in Italy after WWII and is based on "the principles of respect, responsibility, and community through exploration and discovery in a supportive and enriching environment based on the interests of the children through a self-guided curriculum."
The Reggio approach shares some of the values of the better-known Waldorf (Steiner) and Montessori schools, but it's not a philosophy with a set system of beliefs. Rather, it's an approach based around certain fundamental values about how children learn. The core values of the Reggio Emilia approach include recognizing the child as an active participant in learning, an appreciation of the environment as an important educational factor and a view of the parents as active collaborator in the learning process. Furthermore, the teachers foster collaborative relationships with their students and can be considered co-learners rather than just instructors - a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.
The thing I find most attractive about this philosophy is its image of the child. Rather than seeing children as empty vessels ready to be filled with facts, the Reggio approach sees children as competent, full of potential and capable of building their own theories and pursuing their own interests. They are viewed as inherently good and as active authors of their own development, strongly influenced by natural, self-righting forces within themselves.
Blue Gum Community School
Feeling rather excited about this newly discovered approach to education, I Googled "Reggio Emilia Canberra" and found several mentions of a small school called Blue Gum Community School. Blue Gum doesn't label itself a Reggio school, but from what I can gather, it draws on aspects of all three alternative educational systems mentioned above. For a brief overview of the the three styles, see Approaches to Natural Learning: Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf.
Having been informed that the wait list for the Blue Gum preschool program can be very long (how was I not surprised) I put Riker's name down thinking that he might get a place for the 2014 program. Through some unusual circumstances involving school refurbishments and a number of families on the waiting list having to choose other schools while renovations were completed, we were offered a spot in their three year old preschool program after only a month on the waiting list!
Now we were faced with a real decision however - to put Riker into a school program earlier than we'd anticipated or risk losing a place at this well regarded school. After much deliberation we decided not to let the opportunity pass us by and we've enrolled him for two days per week. Having made the decision, I'm feeling very good about it. Of course, it doesn't hurt that several like-minded friends are also enrolling their kids there. I figure that he may very well enjoy the experience and we'll get a taste of whether or not this school thing is for us, I mean, him. And if not, then that will have been valuable too.
School as a Supplemental Tool
Successful or not, we consider this venture into the world of preschool to be an experiment of sorts. We'll be very interested to see what effect it has on his social skills and whether it might improve his abilities to share and solve conflicts with other children. Importantly, we view preschool (and all stages of formal education), not as a substitute for our role as our children's primary teachers, but rather a supplement to the experiences we can provide, not unlike swimming lessons. We've been starting to experiment with other supplemental educational tools as well including reading websites such as ABC Reading Eggs and Starfall and educational apps and games on the iPad like Cargo-Bot to promote logic and reasoning and other games that introduce reading, math, music, drawing, art, writing and so on. As he shows an interest in a particular activity or game, we'll work on it together until he's ready to move on to other interests.
Off to Preschool
So, come Thursday, Riker will officially be a preschooler. The grounds of the school are beautiful and brimming with creative play spaces and they have chickens so he'll feel right at home. It will be really interesting to see how he reacts to this new experience and to hear his response to his first day. As for my response, it seems probable that you'll find me sniffling out front after that first drop off. I'm sure I won't be the only one.