Local pre-schools: Are they meeting children’s’ needs

The primary role of Cayman’s 21 standalone pre-schools, the four government reception classes (which have pre-school age children) and the six which are attached to private schools, is to provide care and education with an emphasis on nurturing academic and social development by learning through play. Whilst pre-schools, by the very nature, prepare children for entry to primary school, offer activities which are geared to a young child’s age and stage of development.

Pre-schools inspections
Assessing how well pre-schools are meeting this objective is the job of the Early Childhood Services Unit, which undertakes a rolling programme of mandatory on-site schools’ inspections throughout the year.

According to the head of the unit, Kate Marnoch, the evaluations follow set criteria including health and safety, quality of care and the quality of education. The inspections, which rate pre-schools from unsatisfactory, satisfactory, good and outstanding, provide each school with independent guidance about areas for improvement, as well as highlighting their current strengths.  Aside from mandated schools’ inspections, Marnoch attends PTA meetings to stress the importance of play in young children’s development.

The list of criteria used by inspection teams, to assess schools include how well schools and staff are meeting the Education Council guidelines, and the standard of creative play and options and early learning curricula for children ages three months to four  years old.

While neither the report nor the specifics of inspection criteria are made public, this policy may change once the Modernisation of the Education Law is fully finalised.

Marnoch says that last academic year’s report (2008/09) showed that Cayman’s pre-schools had not only maintained but in some cases had improved on their previous rating.

Although she declined to give a broad assessment of what this year’s inspections indicate, she did say that pre-schools are continuing to maintain and improve the quality of care and education they provide to our youngest children.

Marnoch says that the few staffing shortfalls are mainly due to the rollover policy, affecting all sectors, the perennial issue of staff waiting for permit approvals from Immigration, and sick leave, which affects all small businesses from time to time. Nevertheless, there are pre-schools which always exceed the minimum staffing ratio, providing an extremely high quality learning environment for the children in their care.

The Observer on Sunday selected 10 local pre-schools for an overview of student/staffing ratios and the creative/social activities offered in the syllabuses of some of Cayman’s pre-schools. Five pre-schools responded.

The staff/student ratios of Little Trotters, Montessori del Sol and Montessori By The Sea and First Baptist WEE Care and Montessori School of Cayman were within the recommended guidelines outlined in the Education Council guidelines of 3:1 (for children six weeks to 12 months); 6:1 (for 12 months to 3 years old); 10:1 (for three to four year olds and 12:1 (for four to five year olds).

The well-documented benefits derived from creative play include:

?Physical development: improved hand eye coordination and fine motor skills,

?Cognitive knowledge gained through experimenting

?Language development: Children talk to each other about what they are doing, develop vocabulary as they use new materials,

?Social development: Children take turns, share, and play in different groups, and

?Emotional development: Builds confidence in their own abilities and helps children in terms of self expression.

Montessori Del Sol
The school seeks to provide a small and friendly ‘home away from home’ atmosphere for its 45 students.

 “We have only 15 students in our toddler room and 30 enrolled in our Primary programme,” says the pre-school’s Principal Amy Lipton.

“Montessori Del Sol operates a holistic approach to education teaching concepts such as grace and courtesy and conflict resolution. During the work cycle the children are free to choose activities such as painting, gardening, colour mixing, continental puzzles, number games and word building.”

“The Montessori method teaches a child academic skills by first introducing concrete impressions and gradually moving toward the abstract concept. For example, in math, the child learns quantity through repeated use of our self correcting Montessori materials. Once the concept is fully understood by the child, he or she is ready to move into working with the symbols.

“We teach each child one on one and therefore implement academics according to the individual ability and needs of each child,” she adds.

As well as a syllabus which includes all the early childhood academic fundamentals; the school offers specialised music classes for children in the school’s primary programme.

The school also features a Children’s House where the children do many of the chores around the classroom including serving their own snacks and washing up afterwards.

Little Trotters Farm & Nursery School
In promoting a leaning environment, Little Trotters combines elements of the teaching philosophies of both Rudolph Steiner Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner. The current student intake is 90 students and is geared exclusively towards two to five year olds.

According to the Owner/Principal, Josie Hoare, the school’s approach is centred on the “study and appreciation of nature, life skills and creative/imaginative play.”

The pre-schools’ teachers prepare their syllabus a month in advance. Lesson plans are devised on a daily basis incorporating different project themes.

Lesson plans include sensorial activities, arts and crafts, storytelling and drama, designing wall murals and occasional work sheets.

The Principal says: “Project themes in the youngest class may include such topics as colours and shapes and transportation whereas project themes for the older children will include loftier subjects such as dinosaurs, the food groups and our solar system.

“School days are structured to include a variety of activities providing the children with fun and indirect insight into the world of science and nature, measurement, and vocabulary.

“Endless opportunities are provided and traditional values such as good manners and respect for one another are embraced. Ultimately, we hope to lay down a foundation of love for our planet and all its living creatures whilst nurturing their understanding of our interdependence upon it,” she adds.

Students also take part in yoga, baking, Spanish, gardening, music & movement, jolly phonics, nature trails and outdoor free play.

First Baptist WEE Care
FBCS WEE Care has a current enrolment of 157 students and 35 teachers, catering to children from ages three months to four years old.

According to its Principal, Mrs. Esther Hinds, the pre-school aims to provide “a Christ-centred environment that meets the educational and spiritual needs of each student.”

Its integrated Christian curriculum teaches not only academics but is structured to provide a spiritual and emotional foundation for each child. Time is devoted each day for devotions, bible lessons and prayer.

Care givers and teachers at the pre-school use a combination of teaching methods to enhance teaching and learning and to cater to different types of learning styles and abilities.

The Principal says: “One such tool is creative play, which allows children to express themselves not only with words but through the use of everyday materials in interesting and imaginative ways.

“Types of materials used include sand and water play, use of play dough, collage, painting and drawing.”

With such creative fundamentals in mind, the pre-school tailors interaction to best suit the developmental abilities of each age group as follows:

Babies – The primary aim of the caregiver is to provide loving physical care to the infant, such as ensuring that the child is in a safe and secure environment and that their physical needs are adequately met.

One year olds – As the child progresses from babies to toddlers other factors are given greater focus. The child begins to develop more of an identity and attachment change. Caregivers continue to take care of basic needs, but also create inspiring class settings where children start to build vocabulary, to explore and to encourage play near or alongside other children.

Materials used include picture cards and charts, musical instruments, singing, block play and use of other manipulatives.

Two year olds – At this age children are developing more mentally and physically. Caregivers find fun and more challenging ways to involve the children in learning activities.

They explore and learn weekly theme discussions on topics such as God’s Word, your body, animals and my family.

Children are also introduced to basic mathematical and language concepts such as number and letter recognition, colours and shapes and are given time to explore independently through life centres, such as home living, book and puzzle corners.

Three year olds – At this age children at are developing stronger identities and are very eager to learn.

WEE Care’s caregivers provide stimulating child-centred experiences where a lot of hands-on learning is promoted as studies show that children learn more through actual experience, exploration and experimentation.

In terms of language development, students are introduced to phonics, and more challenging mathematical concepts. Greater social awareness is also encouraged such as making friends, showing concerns for others, sharing and following instructions.

Four years old – At this developmental milestone children are very active and their curiosity grows correspondingly.

 They think in literal and concrete terms during this stage and so teachers and caregivers place greater emphasis on listening skills, eye-hand coordination fine motor skills and writing skills.

Greater phonetic awareness is also stressed such as recognising consonants and vowels and their sounds and learning to blend certain letters together all of which lead to reading words. As with the other age groups, children are given time to express their creativity through music, finger play, role play and rhyming.

Montessori By The Sea
The pre-school has an intake of 150 children. It has a toddler programme for children aged 20 months to three years old; two Casa programmes for those aged three to six, two lower elementary programmes for the six to nine year olds and one upper elementary programme for the nine to 12 year olds.

A middle years’ programme was introduced in the 2009/10 academic year which caters to the educational needs of children ages 12 to 14 years old.

The school’s Principal Kourtni Jackson says: “Our classrooms are safe… and nurturing environments… All classes are equipped with materials, equipment and furniture that allow maximum exploration and use of the senses by our students and are designed to meet the changing needs of each child as an individual.

She says that the pre-school also aims to provide students “with a legacy of limitless possibilities,” through concepts including: love of life, learning and laughter, environments that engage, excite and embrace everyone, respect for self, others and the world and inspiring innovative thinkers.”

“At Montessori By The Sea, the concept of educating the whole child is central to everything we do. The Montessori curriculum is interdisciplinary, sequential, individualised, contextual, meaning and holistic and provides students with the opportunity to learn in a variety of ways.

“Additionally, each student participates in weekly enrichment classes in PE, Art, Music, Foreign Language and ICT—at the Elementary level. This further facilitates the child’s total development. We empower our students to initiate their own activities, helping them to develop self-reliance, independence and a sense of ownership of their classroom and school environment,” she adds.

Montessori School of Cayman
The pre-school has 30 students aged between two and ½ and four years old, and has three qualified teachers.

Directress Lucy Brewer says: “The school seeks to provide a safe, loving environment for the children to learn in. As for most of the young children this is their first time away from home we try to make the transition as easy as possible for them.  

“We follow the traditional Montessori philosophy which encourages the cognitive, physical, emotional and social development of each child.

“Each child has their own individual learning plan to ensure these needs are met which the teachers use for their daily planning,” Brewer adds.

The pre-school follows the five main Montessori curriculum areas: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Mathematics and Cultural, as well as arts and crafts, music and movement, mini-gym (which includes teams games, tennis and parachute games), yoga and Spanish. 

Montessori School of Cayman has a large, shaded garden with a variety of outdoor activities such as sand and water play and climbing apparatus to promote gross motor skills. “The garden is an important area for the children to develop their social skills,” the Directress says.

Enrolment figures
According to Early Childhood Services Unit figures, 1,268-children were enrolled in the 21 stand alone pre-schools in September 2009.  Many parents rely on nannies/helpers or family members to look after their infants and young children, sending them to pre-school for the final year before primary school.

The last census compiled by the Economics and Statistics Office estimated that out of a total population of approximately 57,009 there were 3,692 children of pre-school age in the Cayman Islands. Given the ratio of pre-schools per capita and that those assessed so far in this year’s annual inspection have maintained and in some cases improved on last year’s assessment, local pre-school education looks in good shape.