No worries, no schedules, no lesson plans
Early learning should be a joyous process of exploration, discovery, and fun. Pressure and stress have no place in these activities. As parents, we naturally want our children to shine. Since children imitate us, we can see them as reflections of ourselves, and may be anxious if they do not learn quickly. We may compare them to other children. You may have these feelings, but they need to be left out of your learning activities at home. The title of this chapter purposely does not use the word teaching. Instead, we are helping children learn. Early learning is not a formal process where the student is an empty vessel to be filled with the teacher’s wisdom. Young children have all the motivational drive they need, and the ability to adapt to the world, already within them. We are simply helping to optimize a natural process of growth and development that happens on its own, even without our involvement. Each child has an inner guide directing her development. The energy and motivation for learning come from within the child rather than being imposed from without by a schedule, lesson plan, or gold stars as a reward. Young children have a strong natural curiosity about the world and tons of energy. It is important to see your home activities as supporting and helping your child’s inner guide, rather than directing the process. Instead of creating lesson plans schedules, and other outer structure, it is more effective to create an activity and experience rich environment and encourage your child to use it. You allow and encourage repetition of favorite activities until your child achieves real mastery. Your child has her own developmental pace. Going with the flow is the best practice. Let your child’s spontaneous interests on a daily basis be your guide. Children are naturally drawn to the experiences they need in order to develop properly. When working with your preschool age child, keep these points in mind:
Patience is a necessity when working with preschoolers. Little children have a natural plan for their development unfolding from within them. we called it the ‘Inner Teacher’. We often superimpose our ideas about how, what, and when children should learn by using lesson plans and weekly schedules. This is what happened for many of us in school, so we can unwittingly repeat the process with our children. This is not only unnecessary, it holds children back. They learn much more effectively when we follow the child and encourage their natural process of development by creating an activity-rich environment that supports it. This is what happens in other good preschools. The result is children who, by six, are reading well and doing math at what is considered an advanced level, all without a hint of pressure or stress, in an environment full of the joy of discovery and exploration. Your child’s spontaneously expressed interests are always your best guide as to what materials and activities to provide. See what attracts and holds your child’s attention, and do more of that. It is pretty clear when a 3-4 year old wants to learn about numbers. She will sit and work with counting and grouping objects for extended periods. He may start pointing to written numerals and wanting to know what they mean. That is the time to start the sequence of activities in this book. Allow your child all the time he needs to learn to count properly, to repeat favorite activities, and to use materials on her own, independently. Real mastery of math or anything else takes time, practice, and repetition. Moving a child along the sequence before she is ready will only cause problems, so err on the side of caution and make sure your child really understand each step before moving on. Have patience and allow this process to happen at its own rate.
When doing activities, avoid any hint of pressure, criticism, or negativity. Be totally positive and upbeat. Have fun! Early learning should always be a process of exploration, discovery, and achieving success through effort. Challenges are good; but allowing a child to become frustrated is definitely not. If you see your child becoming frustrated with an activity, bring it to a positive conclusion and put it away for another day. Criticism, pressure, and other negative stressors have no place in early learning. Our children are in a unique and precious time of life, and require our unfailing love and support. Always search for activities in your child’s Learning Sweet Spot. Activities that are too difficult cause frustration. Those that are too easy cause boredom. These are the extremes you want to try to avoid. The best activities at any time are those that hold your child’s attention, and that she wants to pursue even if she makes a few mistakes and does not master it right away. That is your child’s Learning Sweet Spot. If you see your child becoming frustrated with an activity, bring it to a positive conclusion and do something else. If your child is obviously bored because a material is too easy for him, move on to the next challenge.
Encourage your child’s efforts
The habit of praising children constantly is not a real aid to their development. Repeatedly telling children how smart and wonderful they are is unnecessary. It can create children who assume everything will always fall into place for them because they are simply amazing people. When life doesn’t work that way, they can become very frustrated! Praise is important and fine in small doses. Encouragement is even more effective. Young children develop real self-confidence and a positive self-image by mastering real skills and learning useful information. This helps children feel more in control of their environment. Helping your child accomplish this is perhaps the best way to help her develop a positive self-image based on real achievement instead of empty praise. When a child finally masters a skill or understands something new, he experiences a tangible feeling of success. This experience, repeated many times in the early years with different materials, gives a child a positive sense of her capabilities that carries on for life. He welcomes new experiences because he has succeeded with so many already. This is the awesome power of early learning. Samples of encouraging phrases to use include: “You tried hard and didn’t give up, way to go!” “Keep trying, some things take time, you’ll get it.” “Good try, keep working at it.” “You worked hard and figured it out, good job!” “Give it your best.” “Nice work!” “You really worked hard today!” “Your work is getting better and better.”
Allow time for repetition and independent work
We often think that if someone requires a few repetitions to learn something, they are not as smart as someone who ‘gets it’ right away. This definitely does not apply to young children. Children differ in how easily they master new skills; but all children benefit from repeating favorite activities. It is during these repeated work sessions with materials that children are developing their brain architecture. Repetition strengthens brain nerve pathways. The efficiency and organization of these nerve pathways largely determine a child’s intelligence. Let your child repeat favorite activities as often as he likes. One goal of early learning is to create independent learners. Allow your child uninterrupted quiet time to work with materials independently. This is far more effective than to always be in ‘teaching mode’ with a child. Once you have demonstrated a material as described next, leave it out on your child’s shelves for easy access.
When we show children a new activity or skill, it helps to demonstrate it. Our careful handling and enthusiasm for the material communicates to a child that it is a special item deserving of respect. Demonstrations with some materials, such as the cylinder block in the photo and others like the knobless cylinder, sorting, and transfer materials, can be done without saying a word.
"Do not tell them how to do it. Show them how to do it and do not say a word. If you tell them, they will watch your lips move. If you show them, they will want to do it themselves.” When you demonstrate a material, move very slowly and carefully. Exaggerate your hand movements so your child can clearly see what you are doing. If there is a material, like rice or water, involved, always spill a little. Immediately stop and pick it up or clean up the spill. Provide a cloth and sponge so your child can do this for himself with water activities.
Using workbooks and worksheets
Most of us used worksheets in school, so we naturally think they are good tools for preschoolers. Superb worksheets are easily available online, making them quick and handy for time-challenged parents. I encourage you, however, not to begin with worksheets for your math activities. Young children are acquiring a storehouse of sensory information about the real world through all of their senses, especially the sense of touch. A young child has a unique sensory and neuromuscular connection with her environment. Young children first learn best by handling and manipulating three dimensional objects and interacting with other people. Between the ages of 3-6, children gradually use their accumulated sensory impressions of the world to start picturing the world mentally, using abstract thought. As this process progresses, we can then slowly introduce worksheets and workbooks, as well as high quality digital tablet apps. Give your child plenty of experience with three dimensional objects before you introduce worksheets, workbooks, and digital tablet apps.