Early Learning

This article first published in the Homeschool Journey newsletter, August 2004

I recently received a catalog from a well-known, well-established and, apparently, well-respected homeschool curriculum provider. These folks have been in the homeschooling business for a long, long time and their catalog and presentation are slick and flashy. New this year is their pre-kindergarten curriculum.

Pre-kindergarten curriculum? As someone who finds the idea of a kindergarten curriculum hard to swallow, I was intrigued as to what a pre-K curriculum might look like. Perusing the photo of all the pre-K implements and booklets nicely displayed, I saw acrylic wool, lace-up shapes, an alphabet puzzle, colored paper and some teaching manuals… reading the description of the year’s program I discovered that pre-K children enrolled in this program will “talk about seasons, national heroes, farm animals, the circus, senses, growth and change, community helpers, the United States”.

Hmm… “Senses”. “Growth and change”. “The United States”. They’re going to “talk about” these things. A four year old child and his mother will sit down together to “talk about” the senses. The mind boggles! What will they say? Will Mom describe the working of the olfactory glands? Will she give a glowing account of optics? Or, if that is a little too advanced, perhaps parent and child will take an inventory of ears, noses, tongues, etc. What happens when they talk about “growth and change” – sounds like a philosophy class I took in college. How about “the United States”?  Imagine – a 4 year-old who might not even know the name of his town is going to talk about the United States!

Let’s get real. Let’s see, from our own observations and experience of young children, what they’re about. What do they need? What are their souls and bodies crying out for?

Little children need movement – they are primarily physical beings who crave and need activity. So much is the young child’s experience of life expressed by activity that one can tell his or her moods and thoughts by their movements: the stamping feet, the tentative wriggle, the joyous jumping and leaping… not one poker face in the bunch! Nor should there be – and that’s so important that I’m going to say it again – NOR SHOULD THERE BE. Little children need to be active and they need to be enabled to explore and express via activity. They do not need to “talk about” their senses – they need to use them and develop them. And, because they are in the first 7 year period of their life, which is so clearly defined by activity, they need to use and develop them bodily, not mentally. Not even artistically. Bodily. They need to experience the seasons, to live through the changes in nature and to be allowed to express their natural state of reverence and oneness with what is happening in nature. They don’t need to “talk about it”.

And to place them meaningfully in their world, they need relevant experiences, experiences which speak to their active explorations. Sure, you can get a 4 year-old to parrot the names of the Thirteen Colonies or to recite the capitals of all the States – but is this information meaningful to that child? Is it in context? Can it be experienced and therefore truly understood by that child? No. It cannot. It can be parroted and thus seemingly learned because under-7’s possess a great gift which, unfortunately, can be wrongly made use of by adults. This is the gift of imitation.

A wise parent harnesses a child’s imitative powers by giving her worthwhile and meaningful examples to follow. Knowing that the other great force which lives in the under-7 is activity, the wise parent includes her child in household tasks such as dusting, vacuuming and sweeping as well as outdoor tasks like gardening.  By setting examples, by working with where the child is at, the parent can form and shape the young child’s life, thereby not only creating meaningful and relevant experiences for him but also sidestepping many discipline problems.

When children are given real tasks to do, they are empowered. By not prematurely addressing the child’s latent intellectual capacities through giving her ‘head knowledge’ but, rather, working in a developmentally appropriate way and giving her ‘body information’, we strengthen and support the child. By working rhythmically with the child’s need for activity and equal need for peace and quiet, by bringing a predictable and secure form to our daily lives, we meet her needs and avoid many discipline problems, conflicts which often arise due to tiredness, overstimulation or inappropriate activities.

So when you’re going about your daily life with your child, think of ways to include her in real activities. Don’t give her ‘manipulatives’ when she can lace real shoes, grind real nuts, sort real buttons or clean real fleece. By including our children in our real lives, we show them that life is worthwhile and meaningful – and that cheap plastic imitations of life are not. If we want our children to grow up to be engaged in the struggles and joys of life, then we need to ensure they grow up surrounded by what is authentic. If our lives are full of representations, of what is artificial, of experiences bought and not had, then how can we expect our children to grow up knowing what is real and what is false?

The strong foundations of ‘body knowledge’ built up in early childhood allow for a true understanding of ‘head knowledge’ in later years. We fill our children with what is real, what is actively knowable to them and thereby enable them to have inner confirmation of what they learn. Let’s not rush our little ones through their years of active exploration so that later, when it comes time to talk about senses, seasons, and the United States, that talk has some substance and relevance.

Posted on July 3, 2005 in Kindergarten (and pre-K)

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