I know that kindergarten isn’t the same today as it was 30 years ago, but I thought that young children — even kindergartners — learned more through their play than they learned through reading and writing. If I’m right, why is reading and writing introduced in preschool?
And if I’m wrong, will my attitude cause problems for my son in later years?
A. A posse of ambitious parents can unsettle the most confident mother, even when she’s right. And you are right: children learn best through play, but it has to be offered at the right time and in the right way.
Young children learn to draw and write when they can coordinate their eyes with their hands. But that usually doesn’t happen until they can use their arms and legs quite well because the physical development of children is as programmed as their mental, moral and emotional growth. Although these four developmental paths may fall out of sync in their preteens and early teens, they are closely interwoven in the early years, which could make it a bad idea to teach letters and numbers early. Growing up is a process, not a race.
If schools — and parents — expect children to learn through their play, however, they have to provide the kind of play that will feed their interests, strengthen their confidence and spark their curiosity. If you were to let your son watch TV aimlessly and often, you would simply numb his brain. If you gave him too much knowledge too soon, you and your son might not have time to make your memories. They are more important than the alphabet. You have so many adventures to offer your son in the early years; so many games to play with him; so many songs to sing to him; so many books to read to him — and so little time to do so much.
Of all the activities you can offer, the words he learns — and the sounds that their letters can make — will probably prepare your son for school better than anything else. Let the books you read to him be witty or thoughtful or lovely to look at, so he will want to learn how to read, and talk with him — rather than to him — many times a day, so you can expand his vocabulary and stretch his mind.
When your little boy tells you that his truck is red, point out that his shirt is scarlet or that his daddy is wearing a magenta tie, so he’ll learn that there are many shades of red. When you want him to learn those pesky prepositions, let him run around the table, crawl under the table and hold him over the table, so he’ll remember which is which. And when you want him to learn his numbers, have him use measuring spoons and a measuring cup to make cookies with you. Because a young child still thinks in concrete terms, he needs to work with objects, not ideas.
To learn how your son’s mind works best, read “Awakening Your Child’s Natural Genius” by Thomas Armstrong (Tarcher), which is out of print but available online, and “A Child’s Work” by Vivian Gussin Paley, who is probably the only nursery school teacher to ever be named a MacArthur Fellow (University of Chicago Press; $11). If you want more ammunition, read “Einstein Never Used Flash Cards” by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, with Diane Eyer (Rodale; $16).
Their studies have found that children who learned primarily through play had better social and emotional skills than other children; that the ones who had early academic instruction were less creative — and less enthusiastic about learning — than their peers; and that children who memorized isolated facts when they were young didn’t remember facts any better than those students who hadn’t been coached.
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