Toddlers academy

Written by Garima Pant | Updated: Jul 19 2010, 05:27am hrs
Squeals of laughter, euphoria and excitement greet you as you enter the room. Toddlers with their mummies and maids sit on the carpeted floor, all ears, as a story session begins with a big picture book in the front, accompanied by chorus recitals. Yellow, blue, orange, red stand out against a plethora of stacking blocks, pop-up toys, soft toys, lightweight balls, crayons, pencils and toy cars. Children run along with their mummies, trying to follow and catch the storyteller's attention, dressed up in a costume. This mayhem is followed by healthy snacking and more games.

This is not a scene at a birthday party, but a learning centre at a south Delhi mall that encompasses over 8,000 sq ft of colours, games and toys. The centre has been launched by Julia Gabriel Centre for Learning (JGCL), a Singapore-based early child learning chain.

The centre offers pre-school 'education', which is now an integral part of the education system and even a social trend.

As per estimates provided by brokerage firm CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets, the pre-school segment in India is currently valued at Rs 4,000 crore and is expected to be worth $1 billion by 2012. A new growth factor is the rising popularity of the 'pre-pre-school' or the toddler education segment. A number of learning centres and schools across the country have introduced mother-toddler programmes with children as young as six months becoming a part of the learning curve.

JGCL began operations in India eight years ago and has managed to create a niche. Its centre in Panchsheel, Delhi, already has 500 children and the waiting list is growing. What began literally as a 'cottage industry' in 1990 has seven centres across the world nowone each in Philippines, China, Malaysia and Indonesia and two each in India and Singapore.

JGCL uses a unique approach to learning. Music, speech, drama and games are used to provide quality education to children.

There is no place for rote learning. Independent interpretations of stories, plays and poetry are encouraged, cultivating articulate and lateral thinking.

A social trend

Social factors are also contributing to the growth of this trend. Sociologists believe that the increase in mother-toddler programmes is probably due to the decline of the joint family system and a diminishing sense of community. A booming population, rapid urbanisation, working couples and higher disposable incomes have all contributed to the rise of these upmarket play schools.Due to lack of support at home, mothers may enroll in these programmes as they find a peer group for their children and themselves, says Aruna Sankaranarayanan, director, Prayatna, Centre for Educational Assessment and Intervention.

Dr Ajay Pal Singh, a psychiatrist at Max Hospital, finds the growth and acceptance of toddler education programmes an inevitable trend. He adds, With the changing face of society, such initiatives were bound to be explored. However, the negatives and positives, the long-term and the short-term gains or losses will have to assessed over a period of time. Singh advocates for a social interaction between parents and children, but definitely has reservations against any kind of formal education being imparted as "that can certainly cause damage to the developing brain". Incidentally, studies reveal that 80% of a childs brain is developed between 0-5 years of age.

Amitabh Jhingan, partner and national leader, education practice, Ernst & Young, believes that increasing level of competition at the primary and higher levels of education is forcing parents to even look at the pre-primary segment with the same mindset. The effect is just permeating down. And toddler education doesn't involve any kind of academic learning, but just occupational learning. This pre pre-primary segment is a relatively smaller segment, he adds.

What is surprising is the response of parents towards these programmes. Early child education is very popular among new-age parents. And the trend is not limited to big cities alone, but is rapidly getting support in tier 2 cities and to some extent in small towns too. For toddlers, as part of EduPlay, we have PlayNest for children between 6-18 months, wherein babies and toddlers play and learn in rich, stimulating and nurturing environments created through specially-designed studios and with developmentally appropriate toys and equipment. Learning is facilitated through an array of activities, including music, art and craft, stories, puppets and even a healthy organic snack, says Meenakshi Chibba, MD, JGCL, India, who intends to open centres in Noida, Gurgaon and other big cities in the country.

Experts believe that revenue from the toddler education segment ranges between 15-25% of the total pre-school revenue. This effectively means that the overall toddler market size is anywhere between $50-150 million. The reason why we quote such a wide range is that most of the business from toddlers is part of the unorganised segment, says Bharat Parmar, partner, Eduvisors, an education, research and consulting service provider. Kangaroo Kids Education Ltd (KKEL) also has a toddler programme from 10 months to 16 months. The toddler transitional programme is from 1.5 years to 2 years. Lina Ashar, founder and chairperson, Kangaroo Kids Education Ltd (KKEL), believes that the toddler education sector is still at a nascent level of growth. It will be very difficult to put any estimates due to very few organised players in this sector, adds Ashar.

Too much, too soon

With growing popularity of the mother-toddler education programmes, concerns of safety and pressure on children are bound to arise. I would love to send my daughter to such a programme. It would be a good experience for her and a perfect outing for me as well, says Ramni Rewal, mother of 10-month-old Rhythma Rewal. Her only concern is related to her daughter's health, as she fears her daughter could catch some infection due to low immunity levels in such young children. Nonetheless, the concept appeals to her. A working mother, Ramni rues the fact that lack of social exposure is hampering her daughter's growth. I've been noticing how my daughter is turning into an introvert. She gets cranky very easily too. If I could, then I would love for her to be among children of her age, she adds.

Some vital skills that children are exposed to include fine motor, large motor, sensory, social, colour identification, mathematical concepts, sorting, sequencing, eye-hand coordination, language and vocabulary development. These skills are essential for academic success and do not arrive at birth. These develop when repeated opportunities are provided to assure their development, says Ashar.

Whether children below age two and a half years require such programmes is debatable. A sensitive home environment where family members talk, interact, read and play with the child is all the stimulation a child requires at this stage, says Sankaranarayanan. She adds that the need for a formal learning programme is not essential and unless parents are working and do not have enough time to spend with the child, such programmes may not be advisable.

Care at a cost

Despite interest shown by new-age parents, some still believe in the unstructured education a child receives at home, without paying the exorbitant fees at these new-age schools. Annual fees for elite toddler schools range from Rs 30,000 to Rs 60,000 per year, while middle-range schools charge Rs 8,000-25,000. The fees varies between Rs 2,000-3,000 a month depending upon courses and their frequency, says Chibba. Chennai-based Little Gems also has on offer dedicated programmes on toddler education, beginning as early as three months with fee structures ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 8,500. And infant education specialist, Revathi Sankaran believes that this is a one-time investment during the early age.

As mother is the best teacher, we only train mothers (parents) to train their children, she says.

But given an opportunity to be a part of the growing mother-toddler bandwagon, parents like Rewal wouldn't mind joining in. After all, it's for my own child's welfare, adds Rewal.