What are the skills that young children need to acquire, and what aids are available for this purpose?
In my opinion, children need to acquire skills – whether visual, mathematical or fine motor skills – at their own pace, and at the appropriate age and stage. Normally though, a child moves from learning concrete skills to more abstract ones, and fine motor skills are developed last. These fine motor skills can be taught using clay, or even simple ‘atta’ in the kitchen. Crumpling paper, sticking, colouring or beading activities can also help teach these. On a more basic level, children can talk about what they see and feel to develop their vocabulary and cognitive skills. To build up the imagination, one could play a game of ‘let’s predict what will happen next’ using flashcards. Learning through play is basically based on the famous Maria Montessori’s method, where play for children involves all the senses. This ensures that as children grow older, they get cognitively ready to think of more abstract and logical things.
Do you feel children learn better when they are left alone to explore the world around them, or when they are guided by their parents?
I think it is a combination of both that will help the child. It is imperative that children explore the world by themselves, for if exploration is too guided, it imposes boundaries upon their imagination; the sky should be the limit for a child’s exploration of the world. Nevertheless, guided play is also needed. Our children live in a ‘pressure cooker’ environment that demands everything of them – sports, academics, cultural pursuits. However, each child has some natural inclinations that must be guided – not excessively though.
Do most of these educational aids require parental supervision and guidance, or can children usually discover them on their own?
This depends on the type of skill being taught by the toy; just motor skills, for example, does not require parental guidance, but sharing knowledge through a story or showing cards for perception and visual discrimination does. However, once the parent has taught a child how to use a particular game, she can then be left alone with it the next time she wants to play with it.
How important is it to have time for free-wheeling play that is unstructured?
Although some time should be set aside for structured play using educational toys or games, I would say free-wheeling, unstructured play is essential as it develops the child’s imagination. Simple roleplay, when a child is left alone, can take the child’s imagination to a whole different level altogether. For instance, a simple picture of an airplane can encourage discussion between a child and parent, and then when the child is left alone, she can role-play with it to develop her imagination.