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Daycare dilemmas

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When our family moved back to Prague just before our daughter turned 1, education soon became one of the hot topics of conversation among my new friends with small children. There were so many options, including expensive international preschools, state-run schools and private preschools. But there was also an array of educational focus points such as English language or Czech language, alternative-education pedagogy, early learning and structured play time. We had returned precisely because we wanted to expose our children to the culture and language, so it seemed only natural to choose a state-run school.

On my visits to state preschools, I saw children playing in various corners of rooms with everything from wooden blocks to elaborate theatre sets. Most afternoons it was a common sight to see classes of 3- and 4-year-olds taking a walk through the neighborhood: 12 pairs of children, hand-in-hand, with one teacher.

If we could handle the larger class size and see beyond the schools’ often run-down exteriors, I didn’t see any reason why we, as parents of a Czech child, shouldn’t give the state system a try. The comparatively low cost – CZK 600-1,000 per month, versus CZK 15,000-plus for private international programmes – made it our most realistic option, as well. I knew there were preschools within the state system that offered alternative approaches such as Montessori or Waldorf teaching methods, but, in the end, location and availability led us to register Anna Lee in a preschool with no special alternative focus close to home.

Friends who’d enrolled their children in the various private international options described how their toddlers were learning to identify food groups, recite the planets in the solar system, write their names, or speak second or third languages. Anna couldn’t tell if an apple was a fruit or a vegetable, and she didn’t know anything about the solar system, but she knew the names of the children in her class and she had become quite self-sufficient in the school’s hygienic requirements: dressing/undressing, changing shoes, zipping her jacket and eating somewhat-neatly. She also had increased her Czech vocabulary exponentially.

From watching Anna Lee interact in preschool, I was satisfied that her environment was safe and stimulating. It was refreshing to watch kids playing like children, and I was in awe of the teacher’s ability to manage so many children on her own in public. In contrast to the more structured teaching methods of many of the American and British international programmes, the state system seemed primarily aimed to engage children in interesting play activities.

A graduate student studying preschool pedagogy confirmed for me that the theory behind state-run preschools is to focus more on the experience of interacting with other children. Reading, writing and similar skills are introduced when students enter first grade at age 6 or 7.

After Anna spent half a year at home when our attempts to find a state preschool near our new residence were unsuccessful, we finally enrolled her for a semester in a private preschool for two afternoons a week. While some of the benefits of this new school include a smaller class size and more family-type atmosphere, there is also a “business” feeling to the operation that is less than ideal. Even though Anna’s state preschool teacher wasn’t overly affectionate, she got teary-eyed at the end of the year when Anna gave her flowers and I knew she obviously did care deeply about her students.

We’ve done our best to enroll Anna in the state system for next year. I know that education is one of the most influential factors in a child’s formative years, and that ultimately the decision as to which educational path to follow is particular to each family and each individual child. However, I hope that as Anna gets older, she will have more opportunity to balance her Czech state school education with instruction in her other first language, English. And furthermore, that someday a bilingual state-supported Czech/English school in Prague, similar to the already existent Czech/ French and Czech/German options, would offer English literature and creative writing too. After all, we returned because we wanted to expose our children to Czech culture and language, but there’s plenty more I’d love for them to learn as well.

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