Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Simplicity of Early Childhood Education

The most wonderful and most fearful fact of early childhood development is one we’re all familiar with: the fastest brain growth occurs between birth and age three, and children are capable of learning the most and the most capable of learning between birth and age five. Something like that, right?

Every pop early childhood education book I've read has exploited that fact as its selling point and cornerstone. Do our “x, y and z” plan (and buy our CDs, DVDs, flashcards, workbooks, and equipment) to be sure you’re maximizing your child’s most acute learning years.

It’s often difficult to know what we’re supposed to be doing “educationally” in these preschool years. It takes remarkably little time to teach a four year old basic phonics and beginning math. What else do we do with all their brain power? Get them reading chapter books alone and doing pre-algebra? THAT is a lot of work to teach to a four year old, especially for a not-particularly-skilled teacher like me.

Frankly, I’ve been left desperately afraid that I’m stifling my children’s curiosity and squandering their brain power if I don’t pump them full of information, skills and experiences. The window closes with each passing day. How exhausting for everyone.

Reflecting on this, I’ve started to wonder whether God wired the youngest children with the greatest learning capacity for an entirely different reason, mostly unrelated to academic learning. Ages newborn through five are naturally the years they’re closest to home and under the full-time care of parents, not yet in a formal academic environment. The brain is growing and working hardest in the first five years as the child learns the basics of interacting with his physical environment... but, more importantly, as the child, prior to leaving “the nest” for larger parts of the day, rapidly absorbs and begins taking ownership of family values, family spiritual practices, and all the loves, virtues and priorities modeled by his parents. Trying to take this to heart as my children approach school age has given me great peace.

I think that the most worthy and only necessary “educational” goal in these first five years is to instill in my children that they are children of God, that He loves them with divine love and only He can satisfy their souls’ longings. Accompanying this naturally is consistent training in virtue in their relationships, decisions, and behaviors. These five years are not a laboratory for teaching children the most things; rather, they are a window of opportunity to train children in the most important things. When I listen to their questions, there are a hundred daily chances to talk about the Christian life, about God's creation, God's great plan for us, loving our neighbors. Family life and community life provide ample opportunities for them to practice virtue in little ways, with some parental guidance. Their amazing brains, unquenchable curiosity, and clean souls are fertile ground for Jesus’ love to enter and imprint their hearts permanently.

What a gift, too, to spend our days pointing the souls of children to Jesus, without fanfare and as we go about daily life. By their inquisitiveness and purity, my children keep the presence of God in our home and in my heart, if I follow their lead.


Mary Alice said...

JM, I think you have it all figured out.

Here is how I would approach the "academic" side of early childhood education:

They can learn that books are wonderful friends, and that asking questions is a good way of finding things out, that nature is wonderful in all senses of the word, that hard physical work is rewarding; that you can go out and try difficult things and sometimes succeed, and sometimes fail, and that home and mother are a soft place to land. They can learn that letters make sounds, how to count real things, and that God has made an order to the world. They can use their memory by learning nursery rhymes and little poems or prayers, songs.

They can begin to learn compassion, sharing, love, what to do when angry or sad, and most of that they learn by watching us.

I may have given mistaken impressions because my oldest was desperate to learn to read, he (and other 3 year old boys I know) would stop to study all the letters on signs and licence plates. Others want to watch ants marching or get determined to do the monkey bars. My godson could hit a baseball all day long.

The list of "academic" skills they need to have before kindergarten is quite simple, and can be accomplished in 15 minutes of seat work with a four year old about 4 mornings a week. The other parts of the learning are just as important, or more so.

Right Said Red said...

Amen. Great post.

Kat said...

This post really hit home, JM, and put a smile on my face. Indeed, we have our children for such a short time before they head out into the world, and it is a privilege to be able to teach them the "most important things". Like Mary Alice said, they learn that home is a safe a loving place to be so that no matter what, they can always come home and find comfort.

Kathy said...

We are in our 12th year of homeschooling, beginning when our eldest started 3rd grade, and now having brought three more children through school from the ground up, now in grades 4-7. BK (Before Kids) I taught school for money--pre-school through grade 6.

My conclusion regarding those first five years is NO formal academic education is the best. Some other NOs I consider very important:
NO computer
NO videos
NO electronics or screens at all

The young child's world should be rich in books and pictures read by loving family members; rich in language with loving adults engaging in conversation; rich in experience discovering the world guided by loving parents; rich in music with real instruments; rich in family, love and God. That is enough for their first five years.

Then, at age 5, we slowly introduce academics with learning to read and primer mathematics. Early childhood really lasts through grade 3 when a non-academic atmosphere should predominate the child's life. I have been continually amazed how ready and willing my children were to turn to more academic program beginning at grade 4, with the gentle foundation laid in their early years.

Karen said...

Recently I read a book comparing Japanese and Chinese schools to American, it was call "The Learning gap : why our schools are failing and what we can learn from Japanese and Chinese education" Harold W. Stevenson and James W. Stigler. The book talks about how these Asian countries who lead us by far in academics, don't do much with educating preschoolers and kindergartners. They are far more concerned with their social skills, and not much else. The book is from 1992, so I would like to read something more of the recent Baby Einstein era to see if things have changed.

Another great book is "Einstein Never Used Flash Cards." This book explains that while that is great a preschooler can memorize so easily, they do not have the ability really to fully comprehend it.

The biggest scholastic gift you can give your young child is a love for books and reading, then they will learn whatever they need or want to for the rest of their life.

ashley said...

Great post - so true and so encouraging! :)

Jennifer Frey said...

This is a great post. I think it is a big mistake to push formal learning on kids at this age--though I myself am often tempted in this direction. All those stories of Leibniz and Mill learning Latin and Greek at three make me feel like I'm not on the ball....

You say that we should focus on teaching values, and I agree. But I am often perplexed by how to talk about God with young children, though, since I myself was raised in a completely secular household. I have, therefore, a completely adult understanding of God and Faith. So I would really appreciate future posts about how to talk about God to a two and three year old. My kids go to Mass all the time, but they never really ask what is going on--they play with their friends and their rosaries. We pray at meals and before bed but they never ask why we do it. They never ask about the crucifixes on the wall, and so on and so on.

Right Said Red said...


Great question. In my experience, one of the best ways to share God and our faith with our children is through family prayer time (which you are already doing), bible stories, and living the liturgical year in our home. My children LOVE to read books and to hear bible stories. They soak in so much information about God and our faith in this way. The miracles of Jesus are amazing and they really get my little ones wondering and asking questions. Sometime between 3 and 5 the questions really start to flow.

We also try to tie most of our family celebrations to feast days. Baking a cake for a special saints feast is real learning for a 3 year old--and there is plenty of time in there to talk about the special feast or saint. I would also suggest teaching 2 and 3 year old children one or two simple seasonal religious songs (for example Silent Night). We try to pick songs we know we will sing at Mass on that special day, and this gets the kids much more excited about Mass and involved.

Kathy said...

I should add that when I was in teachers college, I read about a study that found a correlation between early reading instruction to later diagnosis of reading/learning disabilities. Rather than giving children a "head start", it's more likely to handicap them later on.

Also, a pre-schooler doesn't need to be taught about God, but to experience Him. More than at any age that follows, the pre-schooler identifies their parents with God. It's how we represent God to them that is all-important here.

There have been some wonderful ideas here. I'll just add a couple things we did during our children's early years that have borne fruit later on:
1. Read from the Bible to them every day. We started with the simplest Bible story book and advanced to more complete Bible collections as they grew. We read to them individually at bedtime, and read the daily Gospel together at our family prayer time.
By age 8 or 9, we also read some larger saints books at bedtime (e.g., St. Patrick's Summer).
2. The parents need to model a life of prayer, invidually and as a couple. My husband and I, throughout our marriage, have met together for 30 minutes before the children rise to pray the daily office, read the Mass readings for the day and read through another book for marriage or family life.(We both get up before that for our personal prayer time.) This has not only been a good testimony to our children, but has brought us through some pretty rough waters in our marriage.

Jennifer Frey said...

Speaking of feast days, which we do try to celebrate during "uncrowded" months, Michaelmas is coming up this Tuesday. Any great ideas for talking to preschoolers and toddler about angels?? Or book recommendations? Will you ladies be doing anything special?

(I don't mean to hijack this thread, just curious).

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post. I do not have any children yet, but when I do, I will remember what you say!

How unfortunate that this kind of learning seems to be lacking in families where children in the first five years are raised by nannies or in daycare.

Great blog!