Angelina writes: “I have been reading your blog articles as well as following on Facebook. I wish that I knew about your classes when my almost 2 year old was a baby! I was wondering if you could answer a question that I have been having or perhaps provide some insight. There are many blogs that I have been seeing raving about “Tot School” basically a semi-structured school time for young toddlers to preschoolers. I have done a few of the worksheets, art activities, and Montessori activities with her and while she enjoys it and has learned a lot, I can’t help but wonder if it’s too structured. What are your thoughts on early learning at this age? Could it be detrimental or am I maybe being too paranoid?”
First, thank you for reading, and for trusting me enough to ask for my opinion.You are not being at all paranoid. In fact, you are being quite wise to question the value of a semi-structured school time that utilizes worksheets to teach your two year old. I hope you won’t mind that I chose to answer your question publicly, but it is one that comes up frequently, and my hope is that others will benefit from reading, and entering into the discussion.
I hadn’t heard of “Tot School” before, so I did a quick google search, and was dismayed by my findings: “For those of us with older children who are homeschooled, we often place a lot of emphasis on them while the tots just *play.* This isn’t bad, it just didn’t work for me. Personally, I felt I was losing valuable 1 on 1 time with my precious tot that I had with my first child since he was the only one then. Tot School is the time each day I spend with my tot, exposing early learning skills through FUN play.”
Now, there are two aspects of this I love: The first is the idea of spending some time each day focused
on your toddler, and the second is the idea of fun play. ( Play is what your daughter naturally does, and she doesn’t need to be shown how to do it well!) But what I don’t agree with is “exposing (your child to) early learning skills through
FUN play.” Why? Because as soon as you define a ‘learning goal’, and begin to actively ‘teach’ your child through using worksheets, or introducing planned activities and materials that are to be used in a prescribed way to teach number and letter skills
(for instance), your child is no longer engaging in free, experimental, self guided, creative play, and the learning is no longer her own.
It’s just not necessary to expose your daughter to “early learning skills” in a structured, artificial way, because your two year old is constantly learning everything she needs to know just by being involved in her daily routines, actively exploring her world at her own pace, and engaging in relationship with you, the rest of her family, and the children at your local playground. All she needs is play to learn what she needs to learn, and to see her through to the time in her life when she is ready for more structured learning and instruction (ideally, sometime after the age of seven).
This is only one story about one little girl, but it illustrates what I’ve observed any number of times, over a number of years, with a number of children. S. who is now six, and in the first grade, is reading fluently at about a fourth grade level. She loves reading and writing, and just got her first children’s dictionary last week, which she begged her Mom to allow her to sleep with. I learned S. could read one day last year when there was a book fair at the school library, and we went to look at books together. She picked up an early reader, and said “Do you want me to read you a story from this book?” I (of course) said yes, and she sat down and proceeded to read the whole book in an animated way, without a hiccup. I was a bit shocked, to tell the truth. I asked her if her teacher had read the book to her earlier that day, and she said “No Lisa, I just know how to read it.” That night, as I shared the story with her parents, they told me they had just discovered S.’s reading abilities earlier in the week, when she announced that she wanted to read a new book of fairy stories to them at bedtime. They were similarly amazed by her ability and fluency.
The interesting thing is, her parents and I never focused on teaching S. to read through any formal means, like through the use of flashcards or worksheets, or other structured learning activities. We are all avid readers, and she sees us reading and writing regularly. We also took her to the library once every couple of weeks from the time she was about a year old, and of course, we cuddled up and read to her daily. Other than that, S.’s “schedule” as a toddler was just hanging out playing with me or her parents, until she was three and a half, and started to attend a totally play based preschool for a few hours every morning, where she chose to spend most of her time in the dress up corner, or outside on the monkey bars.
It’s ironic that you wrote to me yesterday because a sobering article was just published in Scientific American
which addresses exactly the question you are asking. Entitled The Death Of Preschool
, the byline reads: “The trend in early education is to move from a play-based curriculum to a more school-like environment of directed learning. But is earlier better? And better at what?” The article concludes, “Perhaps most disturbing is the potential for the early exposure to academics to physiologically damage developing brains.” Yes, you read correctly, there is evidence to indicate early exposure to academics may actually damage developing brains. Not what any parent wants for their child, by any means.
…parents might be surprised to learn that “just playing” is in fact what nearly all developmental psychologists, neuroscientists and education experts recommend for children up to age seven as the best way to nurture kids’ development and ready them for academic success later in life. Decades of research have demonstrated that their innate curiosity leads them to develop their social, emotional and physical skills independently, through exploration—that is, through play.
Angelina, all of my education, experience, and instincts combined, lead me to believe that all your little girl needs and what she will most benefit from right now, is your loving care and attention, and the opportunity to play freely (you might give her a ball or a doll, read her a book, or take her to the park) “mucking about” to her heart’s content. It so happens that Janet Lansbury published a post yesterday that I can’t recommend highly enough, which also addresses your question. Janet shares 10 Secrets To Raising Less Stressed Kids, and gives lots of great ideas for what to do instead of “teaching” through structured activities. She also offers a great resource list for learning more.
I will continue to write here, and post links on Facebook that I hope will inspire you to enjoy your daughter, and create an environment that will allow her to flourish through play. If you want to read even more, check out any of the books listed below, which were recommended in the Scientific American article, and happen to be ones I also regularly recommend:
Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn—And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Diane Eyer. Rodale Books, 2003.
The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love,and the Meaning of Life. Alison Gopnik. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
Mind in the Making. Ellen Galinsky. Harper Paperbacks, 2010.
Wishing you and your little girl many happy (unstructured), playful days together!