What should we be teaching our preschoolers?

Holly posted, “In today’s media-rich, standardized academic world, it is easy as a parent to get pulled into the frenzy of preparing kids for the future and to lose sight of what is appropriate and natural development. My philosophy has been to let my 22-month-old twins explore the world through discovery play and not to drill them on ABC’s and 123’s. But it is definitely a challenge to maintain this philosophy when I hear stories of other toddlers ‘counting’ and doing other school-readiness activities before age 3. So the question becomes — how do we as parents know the right time to work on numbers and letters with our children? Do we wait for natural interest to show up after a certain age, or do we incorporate number/letter concepts into activities from the beginning?”

The pendulum in the United States has really swung towards more academics at an earlier age. I’m a Gen X’er, and for most kids brought up along with me in the 70’s kindergarten was a time for playing duck-duck-goose, learning to take turns, and trying to remember to raise your hand before you spoke. Imagine that—a whole school year just for social skills and manners! That’s why kindergarten isn’t “0th grade”. Historically, it hasn’t really been considered a part of academic schooling. And that worked out just fine.

When you look around, do you see many people who never learned readin’, writin’, or ‘rithmatic? There are a few, but by and large just about every kid is going to learn these things. But how many people have you met who’ve failed to learn some more fundamental skills about being a good person: manners, self-respect, and respect for others. If an entire year of childhood could be spent learning the simple lesson “do unto others as you wish others to do unto you,” it would be a year well spent.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing; kids can learn academics and citizenship at the same time. If your toddler is interested in learning things like the names of letters or the sound a pig makes, those are great things to practice and play games with. I would never tell a parent to discourage learning of any kind. But don’t feel pressured by neighbors who have a bigger stack of flash-cards than you, or by the three year old who knows all of the state capitals.

Studies have shown that the advantages of early academics are very limited, except in low socio-economic groups where parents themselves are poorly educated and may lack the skills to teach their children well. In other words, those 3 year old kids who already know all of the “school readiness” things will end up at just about the same academic level as the less “well prepared” children by the time they’re ready for first grade, when the “real schooling” traditionally has begun.

It is harder to brag about a kindergartener who knows how to shake a hand and look someone in the eye than one who already knows all of the letter-sounds. But by the end of that school year, both kids will probably be at the same reading level anyway. In the long run, a foundation in good social skills and good character is far more important.

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