Institutes target new moms and bouncing babiesEight-month-old Lee Ju-eun goes to a playroom every Tuesday. There, a teacher guides her mother to help her get involved in various activities, including playing on a slide and crawling up a ladder or through a plastic tunnel. Ju-eun also plays drums of different sizes. She has many friends. Ten other toddlers aged between six and 10 months are in the same class. People new to this scene may wonder why such young babies are in class or if the mothers are trying to educate their babies far too early.
This is a scene from Korea’s fast-growing early childhood development education sector. During the last decade, a number of early education institutes have opened in Korea. Gymboree, an American franchise, was launched in Korea in 1992, when most people were unfamiliar with early education for infants. Later, other institutes opened with similar play and sensory development programs, such as Bewegung, I-gaem, Bebe School, Gymschule, Crada, Kindy Roo, Kukugym, My Gym, Little Gym and Club I&J. Most describe themselves as gymnasiums for infants.
Gymboree, the largest such institute in Korea, organizes classes that cater to infants and children aged from one month to five years and has 64 branches, with 20,000 students. “For young infants, play equals learning,” said Kim Hye-ryun, an educational program manager at Gymboree.
These early childhood development centers employ different educational methods and equipment, but there is a limit to what they can teach babies who have just started crawling or are barely walking. They mostly focus on improving sensory and motor skills.
In a Gymboree class for infants aged six to 10 months, they are guided to crawl over colorful cellophane paths, follow different sounds in a plastic tunnel and catch soapy bubbles. The playroom is decorated with playground equipment and floor pads finished in mostly primary colors. There are many types of slide: a plastic slide, a slide made of cushions, a tube-shaped slide and a wooden slide. A teacher explained that by crawling up ladders and slides, infants can build their muscular strength and learn how to balance. The teacher said crawling over cellophane of different colors help familiarization with color. Later, mothers helped their babies roll balls to other infants sitting across from them. This is designed to develop sociability, the teacher said.
By the end of the class, many of the babies were whining. The 45-minute class was perhaps too long for them. While the mothers tried to make their children exercise by lifting them up and turning, the babies whimpered or yelled. The class ended just before it became a total mess. Can the infants really learn anything in this fashion?
“Reciprocal play with mothers is helpful in developing a sense of bonding between mother and child,” said Dr. Shin Seok-ho of Dr. Shin’s Neuropsychiatric Clinic. “It is true that the programs are beneficial for early sensory development.” Dr. Shin added, however, it is not certain whether the programs are as beneficial as advertised. He also said formal education for children younger than three years of age is not required as long as mothers are able to play with them properly.
The mothers in general had favorable perceptions of the program. Ju-eun’s mother, Park Hyo-jeong, took her daughter to the class when she was only four months old. At that time, she cried upon seeing strange faces.
“I hoped this would give her a chance to interact with many people,” Ms. Park said. She said after Ju-eun started the class, she became less shy around strangers.
“In the beginning, Ju-eun was afraid of crawling up a slide, but after several weeks, she started climbing 45-degree sloped slides,” Ms. Park said.
Kim Jae-rim, mother of nine-month-old So-young, also took her daughter to the program when she was four months old.
“When we first came, she was barely creeping on her stomach. Then she quickly learned how to crawl. Then she picked up more speed,” Ms. Kim said.
Although the effects of the program are not measurable, most mothers said they thought it was effective.
They also said the program was not only helpful to their babies but to themselves. Many live in apartments so the program gave them a chance to socialize with other mothers, exchange information about raising children and get away from home for a while.
“After giving birth, I felt empty after I quit work and stayed home with my baby,” Ms. Park said. “Now, I have a chance to meet other mothers.”
The women said it is different from cramming knowledge into their babies’ heads, as do some early childhood programs that try to teach reading, writing and even math. “If it were a cram school for infants, I wouldn’t have brought my child here,” Ms. Park said.
One drawback to the classes is the cost. Most programs have one class a week and offer one or two hours during which the children play with their mothers without a teacher present. My Gym charges 390,000 won ($400) for a three-month term and Gymboree charges 270,000 won for the same period. Most language learning programs for adults have five 50-minute classes a week and charge 100,000 won per month. The mothers interviewed said the programs were very expensive.
“Whether these programs are worth what they charge is questionable,” Dr. Shin said.
by Limb Jae-un
Most early childhood development programs accept only preschoolers, but some of the institutions including My Gym, Club I&J, Sidus Sports and Zigzag also provide sports programs for elementary school students.
These sports centers for preschoolers and elementary school children are relatively new in child education here. Centers with in-house facilities in which children can play and learn sports such as soccer, basketball, golf, swimming, field hockey, inline skating and horseback riding or even ballet have newly emerged in Korea. They also organize social activities for children such as birthday parties and provide catering for such events. Such centers differ from traditional sports clubs that only teach an individual sport, or the YMCAs and local sports centers run by municipal or district offices.