It may seem like no more than child’s play, a way to keep little kids productively occupied before they tackle the serious job of learning in first grade.

But, while many people are still skeptical about starting a child’s academic life at kindergarten, as provided for in the Department of Education’s (DepEd) K + 12 scheme, educators appear to agree with author Robert Fulghum who wrote the book, “All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.

Evelina Mejillano, former professor at the University of the Philippines College of Education and national coordinator and lead facilitator of the Mentoring the Mentors Program (MMP), underscored the importance of kindergarten, describing it as the first step in the journey of a child’s academic life.

Compared to New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, Mejillano was actually understating the impact of early education.

Kristof, in a recent column, declared: “But the single step that would do the most to reduce inequality has nothing to do with finance at all. It’s an expansion of early childhood education.” Huh? Those play and learn sessions spell the difference between being gainfully employed and a panhandler?

The columnist quoted Kathleen McCartney, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who said, “The reason early education is important is that you build a foundation for school success. And success breeds success.

Kristof also quoted James Heckman, the Nobel-prize winning economist at the University of Chicago who found that investment in early childhood education paid for themselves, with a return of seven percent or more. “Better than many investments on Wall Street,” the journalist noted.

Lifelong impact

At the recent launching workshop of the MMP Plus Kinder Program in Iloilo City, sponsored by the local Uygongco Foundation, Inc., master teachers, who have spent the better part of their lives molding young minds, impressed upon participants just what kind of knowledge and skills acquired in kindergarten could have lifelong impact.

Iloilo was a fitting launching pad for the MMP Plus Kinder Program. It was in the city where the parent program, an initiative of the Foundation for Worldwide People Power (FWPP) established by Inquirer founding chairperson and Ramon Magsaysay Award winner Eugenia “Eggie” Apostol, had its first workshop.

It was also serendipity that when MMP decided to go into early education teacher training it would find a willing and able sponsor in Uygongco whose executive director, Pia Paz Gan-Uygongco is an alumna of Assumption College. MMP is now managed and implemented by the Marie Eugenie Institute of the Assumption College.

The foundation, which was established in 2008, has made early childhood education a priority concern, providing assistance that included training of teachers, feeding program for students and financial aid to those who needed it.

Uygongco said the foundation was participating in DepEd’s Adopt-A-School program by supporting three schools with kindergarten programs and two day care centers.

Not tutoring

Encouraging participants, teachers and day care workers, to be mentors to their wards, Mejillano said, “Mentoring is not tutoring. A tutor is only (concerned with) academics but a mentor’s role is total. (He/she can influence) all phases of a child’s life–his/her character, personality, etc… Mentoring may be needed at all levels.

Saying what a “big difference a kindergarten teacher makes”, Mejillano said early child education teachers were the first in a child’s life and were starting them on the academic path.

Elnora Montemayor, who taught kindergarten for two decades, said early education teachers’ “responsibility is heavy because you are handling kids when their brains are developing the fastest.” She added, “You educate children by teaching them to learn.

From the opening day guest speaker, Dr. Nelly H. Valerio, Iloilo City schools division superintendent, to facilitator after facilitator, participants were told that what the children learned and acquired in kindergarten would likely stay with them their entire lifetime.

Valerio said kindergarten was the time to start teaching children the right values so they would grow up good citizens of the country. “You are the models in (the classroom) and in your own community,” she told participants. “The future rests with the teachers.”

Expounding on the statement of Stella Delgado-Rufino, MMP special projects director, that “values are not taught, they are caught,” facilitator Sol Francisco said character building among young children should be done through modeling, starting with good habits. Character formation had to be “deliberate, practiced and modeled.” The teacher should be the model of what is considered good behavior.

“Every student deserves respect even if he/she is only four or five years old,” Francisco said.

John Michael de la Paz, grade school teacher at the UP Integrated School and master storyteller, said, “Teachers should not start gender-stereotyping.” De la Paz, the only boy (literally, in a group of women past retirement age) among the MMP facilitators but who managed to hold his own against the formidable women, said there should be no “girls only” or “boys only” stories. Any story to be read is to be shared with the whole class.

Even bullying can be nipped in the bud through greater interaction. Mejillano advised her audience, “Do not isolate anyone, always (find a chance) for group work and create opportunities for interaction.”

But teaching younger kids also required more from their mentors. As teachers of little kids, kindergarten mentors had to be more caring, loving and understanding, Mejillano said. They should love all kinds of children and should make the most effort to care for those “who are difficult to love.” Teachers should explain to students what the lessons’ objectives were so they could be partners in achieving those goals. “Without sharing, at the end of the lesson only the teacher achieves her objectives,” she said.

Teachers should also organize as many activities as they could. “Your pupils should not be sitting down for a long time… For children to be sitting down for a long time is a punishment,” Mejillano said.

The expert teachers also dispelled the notion that effective teaching could only be achieved by using certain tools, often expensive. For the workshop, there was hardly any high-tech gadget except for a video projector. Participants used brown wrapping paper, cartolina, crayon and strips of plain paper.

Mejillano said visual aids could be done by kids and should be prominently displayed to encourage further creativity. Needed materials did not have to be bought all the time. Old magazines, newspapers and other publications could provide the materials needed. Recycling would do just as well in the classroom as elsewhere.

In short, creativity and resourcefulness were needed in the teacher, as much as in the students.

De la Paz said good children’s story books were available at much lower prices in bargain places while Montemayor demonstrated how to make play dough using flour, salt, cooking oil and food coloring—everything edible in case a kid decided to put it in his/her mouth.

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