Anxiously leafing through the pages of the What to Expect series of books or US author Dr Spock’s renowned Baby and Child Care book, parents everywhere may be baffled and confused about their children’s well-being and behaviour. No matter how much they try and how much they take things seriously, bringing up a child remains a very complicated job for all parents, perhaps especially for working mothers.
According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), the government statistics agency, 23 per cent of women in Egypt are members of the work force, and 30 per cent are family breadwinners.
These figures do not include the informal sector or women working without social insurance. They reveal that having paid employment in addition to responsibilities in the home is necessary for many mothers despite their obligations to their families, raising the question of how to organise appropriate childcare for their children in addition to their employment responsibilities.
When it comes to choosing good childcare for their children, many parents are in doubt about how to choose the best type. Ranging from private and public providers to boutique-type carers who might even conduct an interview with toddlers first, parents often do not know how to choose what is the best for their children’s needs.
Understanding your child is the first step towards achieving this goal. “Parents have to understand that children are born with the ability to learn things on their own and to become independent as they build social interactions,” Safeya Al-Tarabolsi, co-founder and director of the Montessori Nile River school in Dokki in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“While children are born helpless, by the age of three they can do a lot of things themselves if the environment allows them to,” she said. “Since children have observational minds, they try imitating adults. That’s why we see our children’s behaviour as similar to our own. You can’t tell your child to stop watching cartoons or playing games on their mobile phones if you are doing the same thing.”
For Al-Tarabolsi, “the first six years are the most vital period in a person’s life. Based on these first six years, one is shaped to be either independent or dependent, confident or hesitant, creative and imaginative or prosaic,” she said. As a result, unlike many conventional classrooms, Montessori school classrooms are designed to enable children to walk and talk freely, as long as no interruptions are made to others. The aim is to allow children to develop their social and emotional intelligence, she added.
The Montessori teaching method was founded by Italian educator Maria Montessori in the 1920s and is based on a child’s needs to develop at his or her own pace by exploring, discovering, and understanding the surrounding environment. Montessori had a vision of classrooms without exams and of individuals passing from one stage to another by their own activities and through their own efforts.
This is how children learn to walk, for example. “Babies try to strengthen their muscles by rolling around and other things until they are able to rise up and walk themselves. The same thing is true of other developmental processes,” Al-Tarabolsi added.
Montessori travelled all over the world to observe children’s behaviour and discovered that children undergo the same processes of development regardless of what country or culture they live in. She established the Association Montessori International in 1929 to promote her work and provide training for teachers and schools that wanted to apply it.
APPROPRIATE CHILDCARE: Al-Tarabolsi is stunned sometimes by her own daughter’s development, even though she is just four years old.
“When I see my daughter washing the dishes, cleaning her shoes, and then starting to do some drawing, I feel she has developed fast through a non-traditional learning process,” she commented. Children, she said, should be encouraged to learn to be culturally aware of the world around them. “You are creating a citizen of the world. You are preparing an adult of tomorrow. Becoming more aware of the world is not a soft skill,” she added.
As children need to feel part of the community, Al-Tarabolsi said that social interactions are vital, and role-playing can help to develop these. “There should not be any useless play — there should be the feeling that play is for a purpose, and this will make it feel important for the child. The alternative would be for the child to feel that playing was useless, which is why children can sometimes be seen throwing away their toys,” she commented.
Even though many childcare centres in Egypt may call themselves Montessori, only a few in fact may apply true Montessori methods, Al-Tarabolsi said. “You can be from a very poor village and still teach your child using Montessori methods. You can be in a very rich environment, but not have a clue about the correct way of bringing up children using these methods,” she commented.
Some parents may not know the difference between academic study and childhood play. “Nurseries are more than day care for your child, since they should provide fun and learning tools. They should put every effort into developing your child’s abilities,” said Sabah Abdel-Aziz, founder of the Little Hands Academy in Cairo.
They should provide a learning environment where everything is there for a specific purpose and should mean something, she said.
Many parents might not know what to look for in good childcare, as they may not have the time to keep up with the best nurseries. It is also difficult to define “the best” when it comes to creating a personality and promoting physical and emotional intelligence in children.
Abdel-Aziz, herself the mother of two children, gives parents some tips on what to look for. It is important to keep a note of your child’s development in motor, language, and other capabilities, she said. If your child does not develop properly, change the day care centre.
Listen to your child, she added. On your way back home, even after a long day, spare half an hour at least to listen to your child talking about what he or she has done at school. Who are his friends? How was his day? “This is a very good exercise, as he will be used to talking to you as a friend, rather than as a parent,” she said.
“Make sure that the nursery has a playground and is completely hygienic with good ventilation. Fresh air and sun are important for your child’s well-being, and the Vitamin D that comes from sunlight is essential in the early years.”
A trained and experienced staff is important. “Sometimes we see nurseries full of students doing part-time work, but this is completely unprofessional,” Abdel-Aziz said.
Above all, it is important for children to feel loved and safe. Clearly, there should be no bullying in any school. “If there is even the suspicion of such things taking place, approach the manager directly and insist that the children are taught how to accept others,” she said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.