All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
After almost four months of navigating school protocols, I visited the public Kindergarten school that one of my former ESL students in New Jersey attends.
Following is some context in order to explain Kindergarten public education in Korea.
Formal education or schooling begins at age 6 or in first grade. A main difference between Kindergarten in the United States and in Korea is that in the latter, the emphasis is on “children’s well-being, safety, play activities and citizenship rather than on cognitive and academic activities.” This curriculum is aligned with the curriculum in grades 1 and 2.
Korea’s free child-care system is called the “Nuri Program.” Nuri means world in Korean, the government describes the program as “signifying a wish for all children to lead their happy lives and fulfill all of their hopes and dreams.”
The goal of Nuri is to “promote holistic development of children aged 3-5.” The curriculum is “child centered and play-based.” Schools can choose to offer “teaching hours from 3-5 based on the age and developmental level of the children, weather, season and parental request.” Public schools can offer the kindergarten curriculum that is aligned with the Nuri curriculum or they can adapt the goal and objectives and follow a Montessori or Reggio Emilia or other constructivist approach becoming a Nuri Plus school. Regardless of their philosophy, the focus is on play and discovery. Children in Korea will have to perform in an extremely rigorous and competitive environment once they enter grade 4 onwards. This stage in education here is truly healthy and cognitively appropriate.
My student Jinhoh’s kindergarten offers a program that is very much in line with Montessori philosophy and pedagogy. In his school, children are “learning by doing and doing by thinking.” The Principal, a smart, engaging and energetic woman who knows the essence of early childhood education, explained to me that children learn by playing, exploring and discovering, they do not need to learn explicitly how to read and write, it is not part of the curriculum. They all read and write as a result of their curiosity and readiness.I asked her if they were ready to undertake the work in grade 1 where learning is more structured though there is still time to play. She said that by the time the finish the year they are totally ready to go on to the next grade.
The teacher is a kindergarten teacher who specializes in this age group. These teachers are trained to work with young children and are not assigned other grade levels.
The students are supported through the school day by the teacher through different activities. Many students attend afternoon classes in the school or in private academies where these skills can be reinforced. However, not all of the children do, many go home and do neither.
The focus is on allowing children to learn at their pace, using their motor and sensory skills to manipulate the materials in their classrooms that will give them the knowledge of language, critical and abstract thinking, problem solving and social skills. This will in turn provide them with independence and self-regulation.
The day was another extra-ordinary experience. Led by Jinhoh and his warm, patient, knowledgeable and skilled teacher, I was impressed by how much they worked and learned.
The teacher assisted them in acquiring knowledge, reflecting and learning. She guided them through science – a lesson on planting, growing and harvesting sweet potatoes or kukuma. This was the only time she sat on a low chair in the “front” of the room while the students gathered on the rug or pulled their small chairs to sit and listen. She showed them photos of themselves at work in the spring and they talked about the process of planting seeds to grow vegetables.
After this lesson and while she was getting the ingredients and set up ready for the next activity, children worked individually or in groups in the different areas. Most of them were engaged in math, reading or writing activities.
Some of the children helped with the sweet potatoes. Then they cooked the kukuma and orderly came to the table with their plates and little forks to take some and try it
– they were incredibly delicious! Jinhoh translated some of the basic things he thought I should know but I was able to follow him and his peers as their teacher instructed them in Korean.
All through the day, there was quiet talking and sharing of ideas on how to solve different problems. Children helped each other as they worked with partners or alone on the floor or at their low tables. Some joined their teacher at her table to work with chopsticks and beans or with diagrams on paper.
We had our lunch together – always one of my favorite parts of the school day in Korea – Jinhoh was thrilled that I liked the menu that his teacher and principal had planned for me. We talked while we ate and he introduced me to his friends – my teacher and translator.
After lunch, they knew what to do – time for brushing their teeth. The Principal came in and took me to her office where she offered me a new toothbrush and toothpaste. I knew what to do too!
Then we all went back to work until it was time to play outside. The teacher led a game of “hide and seek” where the kids would be saved when they crossed their arms on their chests and said “orum”. I joined Jinhoh and his friends as we ran around the playground finding a place to hide. Day was almost over…
Kindergarten can be a magical time of exploration and discovery. A time when children become aware of their world and try to make sense of it. During all the fun and games there was instruction in each content area – except for technology- math, science, reading, writing, social and life skills – children were reading their writing, writing menus, adding and subtracting, experimenting with cooking. They were engaged and involved in creating and using their critical thinking skills . They were learning by doing, doing by thinking.