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No mere child’s play: Study shows preschool pays off big later

LIKE A SPONGE Preschool-age children have an “absorbent mind’’ that soaks up information effortlessly, a principle that shapes the learning program of The Abba’s Orchard school. —PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS BARRAMEDA

MANILA, Philippines — Whenever Evee Raypon thinks about preschool, she remembers handling knives.

“We would chop up carrots and apples and serve them to whoever was around the classroom,” Raypon, now a teacher, said of her experience at a nontraditional school steeped in the methods of the fabled Dr. Maria Montessori.

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Raypon would progress from wielding a knife to working with shapes. Years later, she finished high school with a ticket to two of the country’s top educational institutions — the University of the Philippines (UP) and Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU).

Few would draw a direct line between Raypon’s preschool experience and flourishing academics over a decade later, but a study authored by Ann Paez-Barrameda brings that line into sharp relief.

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What Ann’s study illuminates in particular is that the effect of well-grounded early education can manifest itself several years after preschool.

“I think the study underscores … that human development at an early stage can actually even spell a difference if [students] will make it to any of [the country’s] top three universities,” Ann’s husband Chris said. Many times, parents failed to make that connection, Ann added.

Ann and Chris are the founding directors of The Abba’s Orchard, which Raypon attended.

The school in Cagayan de Oro City offers three successive programs — “casa,” or preschool, elementary, and “Erdkinder,” or high school. As most Montessori schools don’t offer this full spectrum of basic education, it gave Ann unprecedented access to a unique set of data.

In her study, she separated into three groups a pool of 105 graduates of the school’s La Granja campus between 1999 and 2015. Thirty-seven students had been with The Abba’s Orchard since preschool, 48 started in elementary and 20 enrolled only in high school.

The only difference

One striking aspect of Ann’s study involved a simple question: How did these three groups fare when applying to UP, AdMU and De La Salle University?

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She said the results, which she presented in the Netherlands as the keynote speaker of Association Montessori Internationale’s Research Day in April, “stare you in the face.”

Three of 10 students who joined The Abba’s Orchard in high school passed at least one of the entrance tests, a respectable number given the notorious rigor of the exams. The figure rose significantly among students who started in elementary, to around five to six of 10.

But it was in examining students who had been with the school since preschool that a revelation emerged: Nearly all of them, or nine of 10, made it to at least one top university.

“Amazingly, the only difference is they had preschool,” Chris said.

“Sometimes we say, ‘That’s just preschool. It’s only play,’” said Ann, who holds a doctorate degree in education from Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan.

Parents, she added, often look at preschool as a way for their child to pass the time, or a chance for parents without hired help to get a short reprieve each day. “But the impact is great.”

According to Chris, this is because preschool-age children are distinguished by the “absorbent mind,” which, like a sponge, soaks up information effectively and effortlessly.

This is how, for example, language is so easily learned at this time. “Brain science tells us that 85 percent of growth happens between the ages of 0 to 6,” he added.

The risks of not maximizing this period are far-reaching. “If you lose the moment, you lose it completely,” Chris said. “If you mess with it, it leaves an unsightly mark, and that’s carried over. How many homes, for sheer lack of knowledge, mess with it or miss the whole thing?”

When children turn 6, their wiring changes, Ann said. They will still be able to learn, but it’s no longer effortless. “We all know what a difference it makes when we’re doing something we haven’t been forced to.”

She noted how many parents tried to make up for their child’s less-than-stellar preschool program by investing heavily in higher levels of education. But as her study made evident, quality early childhood education is a necessary foundation.

The principle of “master-based learning” is at play here, Chris said. In traditional school settings, receiving a passing mark, even if a child is barely scraping by, would be enough to take them to the next grade level. But the knowledge they failed to grasp will build up over time.

He compared this to a construction project where the sturdiness of the foundation might only be 80 percent of what it should be, but enough to continue building on it. The next floor might also be only 80 percent complete, but is again sufficient to plough ahead.

“By the time you get to the top and it’s now heavier, you will see it will collapse because you missed [the opportunity to build a stronger base],” he said.

Life exercises

A defining feature of The Abba’s Orchard’s preschool experience, which may explain how those three extra years of schooling contributed to its high success rate in entrance tests, is a focus on “practical life exercises,” the Barramedas said.

There are four kinds of these exercises—care of self (like brushing your teeth or dressing up); care of environment (sweeping the floor or washing tables); courtesies (saying “please” and “thank you”); and movements (lifting chairs, standing or walking properly).

Gab Cabrera, another Abba graduate who passed the tests of all three top universities, vividly remembered tasks like dusting learning materials and flipping chairs back onto tables at the end of the school day.

“Eventually it became a habit,” he said. Cleaning wasn’t just a chore but a task that required analysis and evaluation, one of the  “higher-order thinking skills” that are the hallmark of a Montessori education.

“These are responsibilities that you take on when you start living alone,” said Cabrera, a management graduate of AdMU who now works as a relationship manager in a bank. “They instilled this in us early on.”

Learning with the body

Michiko Tan, a certified public accountant, recalled how simple activities like buttoning a shirt and watering plants in preschool “taught me how to become independent” and overcome what she described as the “nanny culture” in many homes that spared young children from doing chores.

As Raypon pointed out, “it’s learning with your whole body. It’s one thing to hear and read, and another to be able to work with your hands.”

These types of exercises lead to improved concentration, focus and direction, and hone character in a way often neglected by traditional schools that just focus on comprehension, the Barramedas said.

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