In a recent article in The Atlantic, author Erika Christakis notes that the landscape of early childhood education in the U.S. has changed in the last two decades. The author discusses how opportunities for organic learning is being replaced by “seat work” where teachers push students to learn and complete their work before they can play. Preschoolers are expected to be school-ready by the time they enter kindergarten, writes Christakis, and in fact, as she argues in her book, The Importance of Being Little (discussed here by Cory Turner) preschool is the new kindergarten just as kindergarten itself is turning into first grade. This seismic shift is “a real threat to our society’s future” according to Christakis. In The Atlantic article, Christakis further points out that despite preschoolers learning more pre-academic skills, overall, their inquisitiveness and long-term engagement with learning and school performance has gone down. The author observes that:
The real focus in the preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening. We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding.
Amidst all these precursors to an early life that is going to be dominated by academics, (TJ’s parents, Aaron and I, are both highly educated and we expect the same from our kids), TJ started early preschool today. I had wanted to enroll him sooner – before E was born but because this school only admits kids 2 years and older, we had to wait. In the interim, I enrolled him at a family-based daycare that had its pros and cons.
The current preschool at which TJ is attending a summer session follows the Montessori method of teaching. According to the American Montessori Society, this method of teaching believes in…
…a view of the child as one who is naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning in a supportive, thoughtfully prepared learning environment. It is an approach that values the human spirit and the development of the whole child—physical, social, emotional, cognitive.
I like order. Though it may not always seem like it and I certainly fail to embody that in every aspect of my life, fact is, when it comes to academics, there has always been a method to my madness in how I do my research studies, how I envision them, then plan and execute them, do my reviews, read relevant bodies of literature, follow certain self-developed strategies that work, and realize a project to fruition. Point is, I like order. I like structure. I like organization, even organized chaos. Therefore, theoretically, I should be a sucker for the kind of curriculum and teaching schedules that hyper-competitive Bay Area schools (including preschools) follow (including sending preschoolers home with homework) but I do not agree with this rigor for kids this young. I believe in letting kids be kids for as long as possible by allowing them to learn of their own will.
Of course educational rigor should be introduced at an appropriate age but gradually and in stages such that the transition does not negatively impact young minds and certainly not at 2 years of age. Not at 3, 4, or even 5. Perhaps Kindergarten or first grade are good academic levels to introduce more structured curricula. I am not an expert in early childhood education so I am not sure what and if there is a right answer (at least according to the Finns, it is the age of 7).
I believe that between the ages of birth-5, a child should be allowed all the freedoms she or he wants to engage in organic learning, creativity, unstructured activities, as well as some mindful direction. Let me explain what I mean by this term.
I believe that children, however young, are capable of being directed to learn in mindful ways. To some that may mean teaching little kids animal sounds, the alphabet song, numbers, shapes, and other things that may help them in higher academic levels. To others, it may mean teaching and allowing kids to dabble in paints or crayons – all purposely introduced as a learning resource. Examples abound. The point being, while kids are allowed their space to learn organically, on some occasions, parents or caregivers, by providing the right resources, may/should gently encourage and loosely direct mindful play because I do believe that this kind of playing can lead to a lot of cognitive learning as well (see Playful learning below).
Mindful direction is also connected to concerted cultivation, a term I will elaborate upon in a future blog post. [There may already be an academic term for what I have conceptualized as mindful direction and if that is the case, I am unaware of it. If you are reading this and you know what it is, please leave a comment to that effect]
I also like Christakis’s concept of playful learning which she explains as:
[Playful learning] is embedded in relationships and in things that are meaningful to children. When you look at how kids learn, they learn when something is meaningful to them, when they have a chance to learn through relationships — and that, of course, happens through play.
I agree with Christakis. During these early years, kids learn especially from those closest to them, namely, their parents, grandparents, and other adults. These interactions they have with adults as well as those they witness/overhear happening between adults are all important socialization tools. Which is why, all of the above that I wrote/discussed – organic learning, mindful direction, and playful learning should, in my opinion, be essentialized in early childhood education, including early preschool.
TJ’s Early Preschool
I have only heard good things about this school and I am excited for TJ to start here. His first day went great. Baby E and I dropped him off in the morning and stayed for a few minutes. Once he got into the sandbox, I asked him for a hug and kissing him good-bye, left him to experience this new space. Everything went smoothly. I think that because he had that daycare experience and I had prepared him for today’s day, he didn’t cry (and neither did I. I cried the first time I left him at daycare back in April). Then again, he hadn’t cried the first day of daycare either but started doing so his third day onwards.
Baby E and I went to pick him up at noon and he was the last kid remaining and he was in the sandbox. All other kids had already been picked up. I wasn’t late but I guess either the other parents were nervous about their kids’ first day and had picked them up sooner or the kids had wanted out and asked to be picked up early. In any case, I found TJ still in the sandbox. Apparently, he did participate in all the morning’s activities so that was good. Otherwise, I would assume that he didn’t leave that sandbox.
I had a tough time getting him home. He really did not want to leave the huge sandbox they have there in their playground with some really huge dumptrucks, his favorite. They were enormous trucks and he was busy filling sand in them with a huge shovel. I had to finally carry him out covered in sand. He cried all the way to the car, in the car, and the entire drive back. He cried on and off even after returning home which eventually only stopped after I let him watch his favorite videos of more, what else, dump trucks, animated this time, and trains. Phew!
Thankfully, Baby E had been an angel the entire time. In the morning after dropping TJ off, she was in such good spirits that I dared to go grocery shopping which, thank my lucky stars, went uneventfully (except for the 50% off New York strip steak I got. Score!!). I had just put her down for a nap at 11:07 a.m. but had to wake that peacefully sleeping baby at 11:35 a.m. so we could go pick her brother up. Poor second-borns!
I am looking forward to seeing how this more formalized academic experience influences TJ. He is growing up, in leaps as I last wrote but he is and will always be my little baby boy. I often stare at my little boy and think back to the days immediately following his birth and just continue staring in amazement. He is such a joy. Sometimes I cannot believe I get to live my life with him and his equally awe-inspiring little sister. As a Hindu Indian who likes to believe in aspects of my religion as is convenient, I have to believe that I must have done something right in my past life to be blessed with the gift of being these wonderful kids’ mother.