Preparing Preschoolers for a Classical Education: Part I, by Jane Emily
Lately there is a lot in the news about young children and a “college prep education.” Many of us have read the news story about the school that canceled the kindergarten class show in favor of “college and career” skills. We’ve heard about the incredible competition for places at expensive private preschools in New York City. Some of us might start to wonder–are the rest of us missing out on the magic ingredient that will make our kids successful? Or is it just that the world has gone insane? Even when we sensibly decide that yes, the world has indeed gone insane, there is a part of us that wonders if our kids are going to make it in that insane world. Universities are more competitive (and more expensive) every year. Everyone is worried about jobs. How can we possibly prepare our kids to do well? Maybe those fancy private preschools are on to something?
It is my belief that classical education is a good answer to those questions. Here on Sandbox to Socrates, we’ve already talked about why we chose classical. Now I’d like to talk a bit about a question so many parents of little ones have: how to prepare our preschoolers for that classical education. What special things should we be doing? In this article, I’m going to assume that you have almost no prior knowledge, even of basic parenting. Please don’t take this as condescending; yes, you will see plenty of things you already know about, but that way we will cover all our bases–if there can be such a thing.
First priorities. Young children need a stable, loving environment that is fairly predictable. Have routines for mornings, meals, and bedtimes. Give these things enough time that you aren’t always rushing, and allow for free time. Try to work with their abilities, and not against them; run errands when they are cheerful, relaxed, and fed, not when they are already hungry or tired. Give them clear and age-appropriate expectations before you go into a situation, so that instructions will be at the front of their minds. Remember that they are going to make messes, and things are going to be hard sometimes, and react to the inevitable accidents and disasters with cheerful firmness as much as you can. Take care of yourself so that you can react with cheerful firmness!
Time outside. This is another obvious one. Kids love to play outside, run on the grass, look at growing things, and just enjoy the world. All that time outside is not somehow wasted when it comes to things like learning and problem-solving and “21st-century skills.” It’s helping her grow. She is observing and learning, experimenting and testing herself. She is practicing large motor and fine motor skills. There are few better places for her to be.
Simple toys. You don’t need a zillion toys, and they definitely don’t have to light up or go beep. But every child should have blocks to stack, a soft toy to snuggle, a puzzle or so, a car to go vroom with, and a few items to play dress-up in. The basics will let them play imaginatively and give their bodies interesting things to do; more is not necessary. That doesn’t mean you need to limit your child to 5 toys. Just don’t feel like you need to buy lots of expensive items; they are not needed.
Limited electronics and screen time. It can be so hard to limit the TV, the computer, and the iPad. Kids love them, they are easy, and we are constantly being told that “educational” electronic toys, videos, and games will help our kids learn more and prepare for their futures. Then, TV can be a lifesaver when you’re trying to make dinner or bathe the baby–I’m not here to tell you that any TV at all will poison your child. (I am, after all, a survivor of years of intensive Scooby-Doo exposure, and I’m still here.) But it is so important to use these things wisely!
Observe your child and see how she does with and without screen time. Many children (many adults!) are unable to tear their eyes away from a screen; the lights and motion grab our attention and don’t let go. Many children can only tolerate a certain amount of TV without losing their cool. When my own kids were tiny, I found out the hard way that I had to limit TV to 20 minutes a day. More than that, and I had a cranky, whiny mess of a kid on my hands–every time. You may find that if you turn off all the screens in your house, your day goes better. TV in the morning may make for a difficult day, so it might be better to save it until the afternoon.
Remember that while some screen time isn’t bad, it also may not be very good. The more time a child spends looking at a two-dimensional image, the less time he is spending in the real world, which is infinitely more complex, demanding, and developmentally appropriate. Almost any “educational” video or game is not actually as educational as a real life full of people, dirt, sticks, and blocks. Remember those Baby Einstein videos that were so popular a few years ago? It turned out that they weren’t educational at all, and watched in large amounts, they were damaging. This is because small children are built to learn from real life and personal interaction. They can’t learn their first language from a screen, and they can’t learn well from flat images they can’t touch.
You may have to train yourself to turn off the TV and not to get out your iPad when your child can see you (I know how much they love to play those games!), but keep him away from it as much as you can. We are now seeing some kids who have spent so much time playing on tablets that they don’t know how to do real-life activities.
Don’t worry that your child won’t be as good at using a computer when she’s an adult. It’s not that hard to learn to use a word processor, and playing games on a tablet doesn’t have much to do with serious computer work. She has plenty of time.
Don’t worry unnecessarily. You play an enormous part in setting the atmosphere of the home. When you burden yourself with stress about whether you are doing enough for your children’s education, whether you are doing things “right,” and all that, you make yourself unhappy and your children can feel that. They won’t know that you are feeling understandable fears out of love for them; they will just sense that you’re unhappy. Sensitive children will decide they’ve done something wrong.
I’m not talking here about severe life problems like depression, unemployment, or family issues. I just mean that if you’re doing your best, it’s better to remember that and keep a cheerful attitude than it is to stress yourself out over the fact that you are not a perfect mother. Remind yourself that you’ve done your homework and you are choosing the best you can for your child, and then relax and enjoy the ride. These are days to treasure.
Next time, I’ll talk about preparing a child for classical academics.
Jane-Emily–Jane-Emily is a classically homeschooling LDS mom of two girls, and a librarian at the local community college, very part-time. She loves to read and will pick up almost anything. She also loves to sew and mostly does quilting, heirloom sewing, and smocking. And she’s a Bollywood addict.