Monday, February 24, 2014

Do More, Do Less: Tips for Early Childhood Education

I promised you all a Preschool Curriculum some time ago. And I'll keep that promise. But not just yet. First, because I want to spend more time chewing over some of the material before I incorporate it to share with you. But more importantly, because I'm in the process of processing something huge...

Quite honestly, you don't need a curriculum. Mine or anyone else's. Why? Because your preschooler can teach you infinitely more than you need to teach her.

I've always been of the mindset that early academics should never be forced. However, when I myself had a precocious three-year-old begging for "reading lessons," I dove in with both feet. Over time, however, through thoughtful research and the reflections of seven years of parenting, I am learning to unlearn all that I once thought. 

I no longer believe that academics should not be forced on children too early. Now, I believe firmly that they should not even be offered as such.

What do I mean by this? Do I mean that you shouldn't count with your child, sing the ABCs, or read a book. Absolutely not. That is not what I mean. But, I do believe that those of us raised in the traditional school system have many things to unlearn about education, particularly where our youngest children are concerned. 

Young children (and by this, I am referring to those who have not yet begun to lose their baby teeth) are still firmly grounded in their bodies. They are learning about the world through exploration and imitation--not through their heads. By drawing them too soon up into the adult world of structure, reason, and intellect, we are not only putting them into a realm that is beyond their capacity to grapple with, we are pulling them too soon out of this world of the body.

Children need time not simply to develop physically, but to be free to explore their emotional world and the world of relationships through free imaginative play and through imitating daily tasks: household tasks, cooking, baking, pet care, etc. They need to "try on" different ways of being in the creative world of play. They need to do this without our adult input or preconceived notions. They need to the opportunity to explore.

Does this mean we have no part to play in our young child's education, other than feeding, clothing, and keeping him safe? Not at all! There is plenty we can do... but there are many things we could also do with less of.

Offered with a humble handful of salt grains, here are a few principles I have come to embrace.


  • Following. Don't worry about the status quo, your mother-in-law's opinion, or whether your child is keeping up with the Jones's. Feel free to listen to advice, but do not swallow it wholesale.

    Remember, your son or daughter is very much still emerging, incarnating, becoming. Who he is now is not who he will be at 18 or 28. Relax. Rather than using this time primarily to "mold" your child's character, relish this time you have to observe her at play and learn her character as deeply as you can. This will give you the greatest foundation for guiding her later, when you really will need to.
  • Away from home. You've heard it before, but I'll say it again: young children are sponges. Not only do they absorb what they are told, they integrate environment, gesture, tone of voice, and attitude into their being. It is in our own homes that we have the most control over what this exposure will consist of. (Humbling, isn't it? This is the greatest motivating factor toward holiness I have ever encountered!)

    We all need to venture outside our walls sometimes, but during the early years, I advise you to limit those adventures. Not only will it give your child the best opportunity to be in an environment worthy of her imitation, it will limit the number of transitions, upheavals, and other surprises that often cause young children great stress and alarm. Playdates, visits to Grandma, church activities, and park days are all wonderful--only remember, less is more. Be thoughtful about where you choose to go with your little one and how often.
  • Structure. As I said above, children need play. They need time to explore, process, and be--with as much parental connection and as few stresses as possible. The numerous and ever varied offerings for structured classes do not aid this, and if anything, many of them may prove counter-productive hindrances to your child's natural development. Often, they are created to occupy children so that parents can have some time off. There's nothing wrong with this. Everyone needs a break, stay-at-home parents more than anyone. But, if you utilize these structured classes, know what you are doing. And if you don't, don't feel guilty that you're the only one on the block who isn't.

    If you fell you absolutely must sign your child up for a class or community activity, try to pick something that is unstructured or very brief. Circle or story time at the library is a good option. Some children's museums are wonderful places for young ones to explore and experience new textures, sounds, and visual stimuli. Petting zoos are great fun!

    Before handing over your money, take some time to explore the location. Is this an environment that will nourish your child, or are there too many stimuli that are likely only overwhelm him and cause him to shut down or lash out? Likewise, be sure to interview the teacher and any assistants. Is their speech and manner what you would wish your child to imitate? Pay particular attention to gesture, movement, and attitude conveyed, as these are the characteristics your child is most likely to pick up on.  


  • Visioning. I know from experience how antsy we parents of young ones can get, especially if we are not employed outside the home. We seem to be counting the years until we can actually "do" something with our children. Rather than surrender to these anxieties, I encourage you to cherish this time when you have fewer cumulative responsibilities.

    Really get to know your child--and yourself as a parent. Research different parenting and education philosophies. Get a vision for what you want your home and family life to look like, what you want for your child's education, and how you might best accomplish these things. Of course, many things you will need to learn as you go, but this is the time to dream the dreams before you need to hit the ground running.
  • Outdoors. My husband is fond of the old saying, "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing." In Western Washington, I can assure you, we know all about this! Invest in whatever inclement weather gear you need for your area, in my case: rain boots, slickers, wool socks, and waterproof mittens. Don't forget to deck yourself out as well as your child! Then, no matter what the weather, you will be prepared to enjoy it.

    Young children crave being in nature. Don't deprive them of this birthright simply because of the cold or the wet. Dress properly, and enjoy the gift of the world with your young one. 
  • Giving. As a parent of young children, it can sometimes feel like all you do is give, from eyes open to eyes closed. But remember, your children are learning the world through you. Hard as it is for us as adults to grasp, they really do need us.

    The more we can give--whether it's a bedtime snuggle, a story read for the twentieth time that afternoon, or yet another game of chase--the better. This may require tremendous discipline on our part: not only patience but perhaps an early bedtime, a project sacrificed to a nap, or an earlier wake-up so that we have time to pray and prepare our heads and hearts for the day ahead. Our children do not have this capacity. It is our privilege and duty to take on these sacrifices for them so that we can give them all they need. (And yes, never doubt that your little one needs you exactly as much as she is expressing.)
  • Rhythm. I've written many times about the value of rhythm in the home. This doesn't mean strict schedules, but it does imply a predictable flow to your days, one that can be adjusted in case of emergency but can always be relied upon to resurface once the crisis has passed. We as adults can often find a certain charm or peace in rhythmic life. Young children see no such thing. For them, rhythm is not charming--it is essential!

    A predictable daily rhythm offers a young child security and an important means of understanding what the world is: good, unhurried, ordered, generous, reliable. If you are a person of faith, it is worth mentioning that this deeply ingrained understanding of the world will largely inform the young child's understanding of the God who created this world.

    Whether you are intentional about rhythm or not, your child is learning from whatever your rhythm is. It is not your job or responsibility to smooth every inch of the path, but it is important that we as parents take care that the path we walk each day with our little ones is one that teaches them those truths of the world we want them to inherit.

So, is it wrong to have a Preschool "Curriculum," to send your child to a traditional preschool, or to invest in community center classes? Not at all. Structure is not a sin. Just be thoughtful about why you are investing in these pursuits, and take care that your child still has plenty of down-time and a reliable, unhurried rhythm to his day.

By all means, count, read, sing! But, for the love of childhood, don't make a "lesson" out of it. Let it arise organically, out of love and reverence and awe and curiosity on your own part and not because you want to give your child a "head start."

The greatest "start" you can give your child is a firm, loving, compassionate grounding in family, home, heart, and earth.

Give her that, and she will learn to love learning. Give her that, and all the rest will follow.


  1. I really enjoyed this post, Bethany! It's so funny because just TODAY I took a trip to the homeschooling bookstore. It was the first time I'd been there, but the reason I went was that I was starting to feel a bit anxious that I wasn't doing "enough" with Louisa! I went in search of a math workbook, a handwriting book, and some clock-learning materials. (And I was tempted to buy more) Louisa is somewhat like Sopia in that she came to me wanting to be a reader, and now I am noticing she enjoys math a lot too (which she must get from her daddy!) So basically I was feeling like I should be supplying her with more, more, more. Still, I know that if I push the formal stuff at the table too much she does get burnt out. Right now we only do "school" three days a week.
    But at the same time, Josie -who just turned three- is wanting to do more, so in a way I'm looking for ways to have Louisa occupied while I try and give Josie some individual attention. So this is just another dynamic that I'm starting to deal with because it's all very recent that Josie comes over to the table and wants to "do school" too.

    A lot of what you said here makes sense though, and it's given me a lot to think about and remember. I'm fairly confident in my ability to teach my youngsters right now just by creating a comfortable home with a good routine and a lot of love. However, as you know sometimes you let outside pressure creep in and start to question some. (My goodness she needs to be able to read a clock like right now! :)

    Again, helpful post - thank you!

    1. I read your post after writing this, Kayleen, and I definitely did think they were related. A Spirit-led "coincidence," for sure!

  2. This IS a mentality that us public schooled children need to break out of, and it's a hard thought pattern to break. We only spend about 2 hours a day on desk work/writing etc. We spend lots of time in the kitchen, doing chores, talking, and the boys (four of them!) spend quite a bit of time pretending with each other, role playing (currently it is soldiers/cowboys), and making tents and such... I also read aloud to them a LOT, which they really enjoy, and we keep it to historical stuff mostly. But YES! We all need to learn to relax--and I think even the public educators need to learn this lesson too... too much fixation on standardized testing and other such cookie cutter garbage...oi... Just my 2 cents :)

    1. Alas, I think many traditional educators would agree with you, Anonymous. If only the school boards and administration saw the needs these perceptive teachers pick up on.

  3. This was so encouraging! We recently decided to not send our son back to preschool next year. It's a wonderful place in many ways, but just too much structure in his day! He's worn out when he comes home. I'm looking forward to him having more time and energy to just do kid stuff like exploring in the backyard and work in the garden and baking and reading.

    1. Congratulations, and blessing son this new stage in your journey, Mary! I, too, noticed a marked exhaustion in Sophia during the few brief weeks she was in a traditional school setting. I sometimes wonder how many children are walking around totally worn out, but because they have always been in some sort of structured "school-type" setting, nobody notices how tired they truly are.

  4. This is a fantastic article Bethany - I'm not a mother yet, but I figure now is the time to really soak up as much information as I can about parenting and I greatly enjoy reading your posts. Incidentally, my mother, also a SAHM for many years, has often echoed the sentiments you express and I had a lovely childhood :)


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