When we think about the purpose of Early Childhood Education, we do not think of children being able to name the alphabet, numbers, colours, shapes and do work sheets as the primary outcomes of early education. However, many of our children end up doing just these in practice. In the case against overemphasis on academics in Early Childhood Education, there is a need to ponder over a few fundamental questions. For example, how are personal traits and attitudes built?; how do young children learn skills such as empathy, ethics, self-discipline, kindness, responsibility and sharing, etc.? While Early Childhood Education policies and principles lay strong emphasis on holistic development and developmentally appropriate learning approaches, there seems to be some gap between policy and practice. In essence, Early Childhood Education practice, unlike school education, should focus on learning socio-emotional skills, cognitive flexibility and language skills through culturally relevant approaches and activities. In this article, I seek to juxtapose early learning principles and gross national happiness by attempting to underscore how GNH is being infused both in policy and principle in Early Childhood Education programmes.
1 AN OVERVIEW OF GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS (GNH)
The philosophy of Gross National Happiness emerged from a vision propounded by His Majesty, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk in 1972, that ‘Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product’. Since then, there have been continual deliberations on the concept. GNH is a holistic and sustainable approach to development which strives for balance between material and non-material values with the conviction that happiness is the ultimate human goal. Therefore, GNH is development guided by human values that emphasise collective happiness and interdependence.
2 RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GNH GOALS AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT OUTCOMES
What does a GNH-infused early childhood education actually look like? How can children learn social, emotional and cultural traits through ECCD programmes? How can happiness as an area of focus be practically integrated into early learning centres? How can we physically design our early childhood centres so that they embody GNH principles? These questions could be clarified to some extent by looking into specific aspects of an early childhood programme, which in Bhutan’s case are as follows:
a Early Childhood Care and Education Policy
An enabling policy is the first step to a goal or a vision. In Bhutan, it is mandatory that any policy or programme has to ultimately contribute to enhancing happiness and well-being. A policy screening tool is used for screening policies to ensure that policies contribute to increasing happiness. In this sense, as the Early Childhood Education policy aims to promote holistic development of children for them to thrive and succeed in school and in life, it upholds well-being and happiness, and is in fact foundational to lifelong health, happiness and learning.
b Early Learning and Development Standards
The Early Learning and Development Standards (ELDS) are valuable benchmarks for high-quality system of services for young children, emphasising developmentally appropriate content and outcomes. The standards give emphasis to six domains of early development and learning namely physical well-being and motor skills, emotional and social development, language development, general knowledge and cognitive development and moral and cultural development. GNH as a national vision has also been infused in these standards, wherever necessary and possible and the following are a few examples of GNH infused standards:
Children are able to differentiate between events that happened in the past, present and the future. (GNH domain - community vitality)
Children demonstrate knowledge of relationship between people, places and regions. (GNH domain - community vitality)
Children are able to demonstrate awareness of economic concepts (GNH domain - economy)
Children are able to understand that the use of technology makes life easier (GNH domain - education)
Children are able to use creative arts as a means to express themselves (GNH domain - education)
Children are able to demonstrate spirituality. (GNH domain – wellbeing)
Children are able to exhibit honesty in words and in actions. (GNH domain – good governance)
Children are able to take on responsibility. (GNH domain - community vitality/ education)
Children are able to show respect and concern for others (GNH domain - community vitality/ cultural diversity)
Children are able to show respect, sense of belongingness (identity) and love for one’s country and culture. (GNH domain - community vitality/ cultural diversity)
Children understand characteristics of the natural world through observation (GNH domain - ecology)
Children are able to use different approaches to solve a problem. (GNH domain - education)
Children are able to demonstrate understanding of cause and effect (GNH domain - ecology/ education)
Children are able to adapt and control emotions (GNH domain - health)
Children are able to demonstrate self-confidence (GNH domain - wellbeing)
Children are able to demonstrate interpersonal skills (GNH domain – community vitality)
Children are able to demonstrate healthy habits and personal care and hygiene (GNH domain - health)
3 EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION PRACTICES
Many of the day to day practices within the early childhood centres have underpinnings of GNH, which actually help children to learn what is fun, relevant and meaningful to them as well as enrich the programmes. The following are some of the note-worthy practices being carried out in many of the centres:
a Learning from and with the environment
Learning through the environment and using environment friendly materials and practices to develop children’s awareness, understanding and appreciation of the environment is an important consideration realised through activities that children love doing such as planting and growing a tree, nature walks and using nature as learning spaces and themes. Furthermore, preparation of learning materials from locally available resources and waste materials is also encouraged, thereby contributing to conservation and sustainability of resources.
b Learning of culture and traditional values
Learning of traditional culture and language is an important task for children in Bhutan. With the onslaught of modernization, there is apprehension that most children, especially those brought up in cities in small families may not learn and understand the values and customs. So, parent involvement in story-telling, songs and dances, arts and crafts, etc. are encouraged. Even as part of regular activities such as dramatisation and pretend play, folk culture, local languages and traditions are promoted. Children are also encouraged to participate in community events and local festivals.
a Meditation and mindfulness training
Meditation or mindfulness training is a regular part of the Early Childhood Care and Education programmes. This is not in the sense of religious indoctrination but done by way of joyful experiences. Through this activity, children have the opportunity to reflect on many things such as their friends, family, activities at home, foods they like, etc. This activity is also productively used as a transition activity to settle children from one activity to the next one. It is hoped that repeated practice of meditation starting in the early childhood centre would help children develop into reflective persons and build resilience against stress throughout their lives.
b Social Interaction and bonding
Relationships based on respectful, responsive and reciprocative interactions are encouraged at all times as part of the ethos of each of the centres. This includes greeting each other regularly, expressing gratitude, offering help, taking turns, cooperating in activities, sharing things and helping each other. In addition, love and respect for elders as an important part of the Bhutanese culture is encouraged.
Furthermore, there is emphasis on the ‘cause and effect’ phenomena in every aspect of programmes in Early Childhood Care and Education centres. This is critical as part of the Bhutanese culture where the law of causality or ‘Karma’ assumes an important role in encouraging or discouraging any act, thought or behaviour. At the early childhood level, this is strengthened through activities and ideas such as:
If we litter, the environment will get dirty
If we spoke harshly, the other person will get hurt
If we washed our hands, we will not get sick
If we said ‘Thank you’, the other person will be happy that he/she did something meaningful
If we helped someone in need, he/she will be okay, etc.
4 Parenting Education
As the parents are important players in children’s learning both at home and in the centres, and maintaining a link between the two, parenting education as an integral aspect of the programme draws from parents’ knowledge and skills. The diverse backgrounds of parents and families help to enrich children’s experiences as parents get involved in the centre programmes. Parenting education sessions are also used to discuss common issues pertaining to child-raising and to inform them on emerging perspectives on child care and development. In this way, centres and families have the opportunity to build close relationships and work together for children.
Gross National Happiness as the overarching goal of all efforts in every field is most appropriate in the context of child education. Through the simple day to day activities that are carried out in Early Childhood Education Centres, by ensuring that children’s learning experiences are meaningful and fun filled, it is believed that the foundations of happiness are laid. When there is a goal such as gross national happiness, provided it is not pursued with compulsive obsession, the early childhood programmes have a direction that enables them to support children in a way that balances their present wellbeing and future success. GNH as a guiding light is therefore an immensely enriching element in all early childhood programmes in Bhutan.
Karma Gayleg works with the Ministry of Education in Bhutan. As a Program Leader for ECCD in Bhutan since 2007, he gave momentum to the ECCD program through rigorous advocacy initiatives and innovative models of ECCD. He has been associated with ARNEC, as a country focal person and as steering committee member. He was also a Global Leader for the World Forum for Early Childhood in 2011-12 representing the Asia Pacific Region.
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