The Balancing Act | The learning conundrum: An early start or a solid foundation?

I recently experienced one of the many dilemmas expats face. It was the classic tussle between staying local or going global. When my family first moved here a year and a half ago, we were keen to have a truly Danish experience and attempted to do as the locals did. So, in an endeavour to speak the local language, I signed up for Danish classes. To experience the Danish education system firsthand, we enrolled our child in a Danish børnehave.


What followed was a year in which we enjoyed the best of the stress-free Danish early education system that focuses on social and motor skills. My daughter’s days were dotted with activities that make for a dream childhood: playing with a plethora of toys, romping in the sand pit, and visiting parks, farms and forests.


But after this blissful year, the novelty began to wear off. Since the three to six-year-olds were grouped together and there were barely any activities customised for children of different age groups, the thought of my daughter spending another two years doing the same set of activities perturbed me. Denmark is among the few countries where children begin formal schooling at the age of six. Most other countries begin formal schooling at the age of five and some – like my home country of India – at four.


So I succumbed and gave into the persistent nagging thought: “Shouldn’t my child be doing more? Isn’t her mind, constantly buzzing with a hundred whys, ready to be initiated into formal education?” While I was grappling with the juxtaposition of my personal experience of having had an early educational start with the advantages of the system in Denmark, I heard about three-year-olds at a certain school in another country reciting, from memory, a five-minute speech describing an apple tree. Gulp! And all I wanted was a simple start on learning the alphabet and numeral system. That wasn’t too much to ask, was it?


But while I was enthusiastically listing the benefits of an early educational start to a former colleague, something he said made me pause. He said an early start does not necessarily make children among the best in reading, writing and arithmetic globally. As I pondered his statement, I realised that another aspect to consider is the type and diversity of professionals that an education system creates. If I were to take the example of India, it seems that while the early start may have had a role in producing a good number of doctors, engineers and IT specialists, it hasn’t been as generous with sportsmen, artists, designers and innovators. Perhaps the delayed start gives Danish children the time and opportunity to explore, think, question, reflect and create, making for a solid foundation and a well-rounded education later.


Meanwhile, I try to ignore the alarm bells ringing furiously in my mind when responsibility for children in the 0-6 age group here keeps shuttling between the Education Ministry and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Immigration. The concern is that small children will be the losers when their education is overshadowed by issues like immigration and social problems. Only time will tell how things pan out and whether the current education system will continue to favour the country and help it be globally competitive.


For those curious to know, we did make a switch to an international pre-school after much deliberation and a cost-benefit analysis. We are hoping for a happy middle between an early start and a solid foundation.


As I write this, the irony hasn’t escaped me that I’m fortunate to have this particular learning conundrum. I’m among those who can afford to send their children to any school, let alone a good one. There are still too many poor children in India who have to be enticed to school with the promise of a midday meal. A meal that proved fatal for 23 school children who ate a pesticide-laced school lunch earlier this summer. That incident certainly gave me a new, heartrending perspective.