Volume:2, Issue: 2

Aug. 1, 2010

“A Town of Childhood” as a Step to Establish Cooperation Between Russian and American Systems of Preschool Education
Natalia S. Zakharova [about] , Julia V. Kournikova [about]

TITLE: “A Town of Childhood” as a Step to Establish Cooperation Between Russian and American Systems of Preschool Education

AUTHORS: Natalia S.  Zakharova, Julia V. Kournikova
DESCRIPTORS: Russian system of preschool education, new educational realities, innovative approaches, participation of the family in the educational program, a preschool as a research laboratory.

SYNOPSIS: The authors present an innovative model of a preschool which serves as an example of true cooperation between a university college and its students. This is an attempt to create favorable conditions for both young parents and their children – for the first – to successfully study and for the second – to fully develop at a preschool stage. This is also an example of  a  mutually enriching cooperation between Russian and American colleagues.


“A Town of Childhood” as a Step to Establish Cooperation
Between Russian and American Systems of Preschool Education

Natalia S.  Zakharova1, Julia V. Kournikova2
Traditionally, the Russian system of preschool education has been reduced to simply placing and keeping a child in a preschool. But the times have changed, and the status of preschool education has changed as well. These changes are also happening all over the world. Recently, Finland (and then Latvia) announced the transfer of preschool educational establishments from social welfare authorities to educational authorities. In Russia (initially, in the former Soviet Union) preschools and kindergartens have been under the supervision of the educational administration for many decades. This recognizes the fact that a child of a preschool age should not only be provided with care but also with upbringing, education, and developmental support. Such an approach is necessary but insufficient for transforming the preschool stage into a basic, integral and complete component of the overall system of education. Clearly, serious research conducted in a number of different Russian institutions should precede the substantiation of the new status of preschool education. We need to admit that such research has been done during the past years, and it has allowed to form a new legal basis for this type of education and to create innovative approaches for involving every child into his educational community.

The formation of a competitive environment for the development of preschool education in the Perm region and the creation of conditions for cooperation between the public and private providers of educational services have significantly expanded the range of possibilities and the variety of forms of early childhood education. Over the last few years we have witnessed a number of serious attempts to create a complete system of preschool education. Centers for Children’s Development that adapted the most advanced modern technologies, bilingual kindergartens, and elementary school-preschool complexes have appeared. But people still believe that if preschool education is a first step of the whole system of education, then it should be oriented towards higher levels, to an elementary school, in our case. As a result, a kindergarten is often transformed, if not into a small school, then into the place where children are prepared for it. However, modern research shows that the enforced training of preschool children for their transition to the system of general compulsory education has a negative impact on their psychological and physical health and development, and it also hinders their harmonic involvement in school life. In other words, it is very important to find a balance that will allow the preservation of the best educational traditions and the introduction of modern health-saving methods for early development in the educational process. Specialists from the educational holding “Prikamsky Social Institute” (PSI) have analyzed the experience of the Russian and foreign systems of education in order to use different innovative approaches while creating a new kind of a preschool educational establishment. 

Today, two parallel and interconnected processes define the world of education – the signing of the Bologna Declaration by the majority of European states and Russia, and consequently, the formation of a united European educational space. With this environment in mind we have created the first multicultural preschool in Perm.  The key concept is the realization of continuous education (exactly what has been provided by PSI), where a kindergarten is just the first stage and plays a significant role in the overall system of education. A modern kindergarten can provide an ideal setting for field practice for full-time students of the School of Psychology, for teachers who are receiving additional education in this field, and for students in the School of Economics and Finance who are training to become managers in education. Taking all this into account, we decided to use the first stage of the system of continuous education as the basis for training and retraining of part-time students who attend higher educational establishments where they are exposed to a variety of educational models including weekend education.

Part-time students who have their own children constantly face the problem of arranging short-term childcare or baby-sitting for their children during academic studies on holidays and weekends. Since this kind of service is not widely available in Perm, student-parents have initiated the establishment of a kindergarten that operates on weekends at their institute. The idea has turned out to be quite challenging and required additional and thorough study. As was mentioned earlier, the majority of students interested in the creation of a new form of preschool education are from the Schools of Psychology, Economics and Finance (with their majors in “Management”) and we decided to actively involve them in the work of a new preschool.

In general, our concept of this educational establishment reflects both the new realities of Russian preschool education and the potential cooperation with different European and American colleagues. It also combines the best traditions of the Russian early childhood education and development, and world practice, including the USA.

No doubt, there are many similar problems and tendencies in the systems of education in Russia and the United States. This can be explained mostly by the dominance of the urban lifestyle in our societies’ development. In the old days, parents and families, comprising two or more generations together with their relatives, friends and neighbors living nearby, were responsible for the upbringing of their children.  From day one, a child was involved in a wide world of close relatives with their demands and various experiences of communication. Besides, in small towns and villages neighbors were almost part of a family -- any child was not only placed in an environment of caring adults but he was also exposed to being in the real world of other people.  In contrast, modern large cities have established the culture and dominance of primarily nuclear families with only two adults at best.

If the child is lucky, he meets with his grandparents a few times per year. Parents and relatives are practically eliminated from the process of education and upbringing: they are busy with their work or social life; and communication with children is usually focused on household questions: food, clothing, and formal daily reports. Thus, contacts are becoming more limited; family ties are getting weaker, and more often than not, they just break apart. In other words, a modern child is involved in an exceptionally limited circle of contacts in his age group since the quantity of children in modern families is limited to one or two and, the age difference between them is not large. Groups in kindergartens, like grades in schools, are based on a similar age principle. This situation hinders communication with the representatives of different age groups. This is why older children cannot interact with the younger ones, and the people of different generations find it more and more difficult to have any common language.

Metropolises have become a reason for the sharp decrease in human contacts, substituted for children by television and a virtual digital world. Children find themselves placed in the “sterile” environment, where all human activities are narrowed to their parents’ going to work, working itself, and coming back home from work with the inevitable sitting in front of the TV afterwards. In their preschools children usually interact with no more than two or three teachers, and they are not involved with the work of other staff members. More so many parents deliberately protect their children from any dangers of big cities, thus limiting their mobility and communication. For this reason a modern urban child has a very vague idea of reality and does not obtain any important life experience.

The research of Professor Herbert Wright3 from the University of Kansas shows that the children and teenagers who were raised in small towns, obtain more significant and socially valuable experience of communication with a wide range of people from different fields, and they also become more active in their adult life. This is why the main idea of the kindergarten being established by the institute is to preserve the image and style, comparable with a lifestyle of a town, where children are surrounded by a large number of interested adults, as well as peers and other children of different ages. Adults are represented not only by children’s parents and teachers; they also include very important people from older generations, such as grandparents and other relatives. Besides, student volunteers and students doing their field practice are also part of the expanded circle of contacts.

At the moment we are far from being able to present a complete, scientifically and methodologically approved concept of such a preschool. But the formation of the content of some components of the educational system of the kindergarten as the town of childhood has been defined. The innovative approaches, adapted by preschool education, and the possibility of parental choice for an individualized program for their children, allow the creation of conditions for the development of both children who attend classes in a preschool on a continual basis and those who receive educational services in groups of limited duration.

That is how the mission of the Sunday kindergarten “A Town of Childhood” was conceived. Its essence is the continuous participation of a family in the educational program allowing intellectual, emotional, physical and social development not only for the youngest children but for their parents as well; thus breaking the cycle of artificially limited contacts. In the kindergarten an adult can play different social roles: a student-in-training in a group, which his child attends, a teacher for his child and other children, a parent, who not only watches his child but who is actively involved in the educational process, and a subject of the educational environment, creating conditions for learning new knowledge. The primary task is to make parents full partners in the process of upbringing, and to master their professional and parental skills. The introduction of adults to the world of children allows them to see and understand their children in a different environment, while working together.  The task of mentor-teachers (as a rule, they are the teachers who have the experience of working in preschools and higher educational establishments), medical personnel, and tutors is to create conditions that can alter parents’ perception of their own children and to simultaneously “open” the eyes of children. Such a system helps to create mutual trust between all the participants of an educational process, an atmosphere of respect, love and an understanding that will overcome the estrangement of generations in the modern society.

Of course, this approach is not an invention of our institute. We had the opportunity to observe similar activities during the visit to the Children’s Center at California State University Fullerton in October 2009. Cooperation with colleagues from this university allowed us to integrate their innovative experiences with the educational process in our experimental kindergarten in Perm. Professor Claire Cavallaro, Dean of the College of Education, agreed to be one of the supervisors of the project, and is ready to support our efforts.

The project “A Town of Childhood” has become very popular in Perm because of an urgent need to bring children and adults together in a common space where they can learn and develop. A group of enthusiastic parents suggested the expansion of the initial project objectives. One of their ideas was to start teaching English (with the involvement of native speakers) to both children and parents since English is an effective means of creating a multicultural community. The notion of a “family language” has been developed; by this we mean a language that allows teachers to reach into the lives of children and their families. All this has raised our awareness of the need for new principles of interaction among family members in situations when a child has more knowledge of English than the rest of his extended family. Interestingly enough, in this situation children may function as “teachers” for their parents and grandparents, and it is necessary to provide children and parents with the instruments, which will help them not only to use methods provided in the kindergarten, but also develop their own, familial ways of training language skills at home.
The purpose of our “town” is the formation of the basis for physical and psychological development of children, and the creation of conditions for their initial involvement in social life. This is why our preschool can be considered a laboratory for studying the stages of the formation of practical, cognitive, moral and emotional attitudes to objective reality, to other people and to children themselves. In the process of psychological analysis and pedagogical monitoring of children we try to evaluate not only their notions, skills and abilities but also children’s living conditions created in both kindergarten and home environments. This is why it is required that both teachers and parents participate in various training sessions under the supervision of leading instructors from our School of Psychology. We also plan to put together different research conferences and seminars that will be held in our kindergarten, organized in cooperation with professors and lecturers from our School of Education, and devoted to new approaches in early childhood education.

The involvement of children in social life is impossible without their interaction with adults, who are professionals in different fields. In this way we start professional orientation of preschoolers at our “Town of Childhood”. Meeting with the world of professions at a preschool age usually means playing “adult roles”: doctors, teachers, shop assistants, or drivers. Our observations show that it is easier for children to create a game based on famous cartoons, soap operas or computer games, and copy the behavior of fictional characters rather than role-play a real person in a professional field. That is why the role of adults from different professional fields -- student-volunteers and grandparents, who are constantly involved in the educational process, is extremely important in our kindergarten. Their leadership in different workshops is an example for the children and other adults. It is an interesting experience to return to the world of a small town, where a child can proudly claim: “Today I have sewed an apron or packed a parcel (together with my granny, grandpa, etc.).” It is a way to inspire children’s interest in the real world, shown not only on television, but acquired through their personal experience. 

In our “town” we use game technologies developed in the United States that help to obtain new knowledge and skills in an easy playful form. Learning English is accompanied by the development of active movements because thinking and acting-out are closely connected with each other at this age. Different teaching materials provided by our American colleagues help to create conditions for developing and educating children at the same time. It is important to repeat again that preschool education is a continuous process that does not end when a child returns home. By this we mean that families should make an effort to recreate an educational environment at home. Doing this requires special training for parents.

A modern urban child is deprived of the freedom of movement. Playing games outside with children of different ages, climbing trees, riding bicycles and even walking up and down stairs are considered uncomfortable. In Russian preschools and kindergartens, physical development of children is unfortunately not a priority; there are usually just a couple of physical educational classes a week. At home, parents try to keep their children busy with quiet games, computer games, and intellectual puzzles. Adults spend practically entire days inside without any exercise. This tends to cause a number of diseases and a decrease in muscle tone. Knowing this, we decided that we should concentrate on developing the so-called “physical intellect,” which is closely connected with the development of the kinetic activity of adults and children. This system is represented in the works of the American psychologist and teacher Glenn Doman4 as the basis of the early development of a child in the mutual activity together with adults. In order to create the necessary conditions for children’s physical development, each group should have a sports corner used constantly during classes by both adults and children. Easy physical exercises repeatedly done by parents and children under the supervision of specially trained teachers help to alleviate fatigue and stress, to easily switch to a different activity, and to simultaneously form one’s “physical intellect”. Training of parents on how to use these techniques will help to promote their regular use at home.

We suggest an unusual approach to designing the territory of our preschool. People who grew up in small towns remember how well their yards were organized and used. Children and adults could find many activities there. We plan constructing the grounds for rollerblading and ice-skating in winter together with organizing traditional playgrounds and sport venues for different age groups in our “town of childhood.” A contemporary city-dweller becomes more remote and isolated from nature, loosing actual connections with it. So it is our intent to start a winter garden with various miniature landscapes, to construct a nursery where parents together with children will grow plants, watch wildlife, and perform their first naturalistic experiments.

Gradually, a student-parent will understand the necessity to consult with specialists and to receive their recommendations on the further development of the family members; he will also recognize the importance of the system’s approach to upbringing and educating children, which cannot always be fulfilled during weekend classes. This understanding leads to the involvement of the entire family in continuous education, and it will also give parents an opportunity to evaluate their “parental” work, to realize that this work needs professionalism and to formulate goals and objectives for the upbringing of their children.

“A Town of Childhood” is a real pedagogical laboratory and a new educational environment, aimed at developing innovative approaches to continuous education, directed to the creation of the world of childhood, based on the close connections of one’s family and a preschool, and on the formation of common principles and purposes to educate a new citizen for a global world.

1 Zakharova, Natalia S., [In Russian: Наталья Сергеевна Захарова], Professor, Ph.D., First Vice-President, the Prikamsky Social Institute, Perm, Russia.

2 Kournikova, Julia V., [In Russian: Юлия Владимировна Курникова], a teacher, European School “Ex Professo”, Perm, Russia.

3 See: См.: Roger G. Barker and Herbert F. Wright, Midwest and Its Children, Evanson: Row, Peterson, 2004.

4 See: Гленн Д. Гармоничное развитие ребенка. - М.: "Аквариум", 2006.

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