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Young children spend the first five or six years of their lives busily making sense out of life around them. Their brains are on overdrive: observing, categorizing, comparing, discriminating, problem solving, experimenting, testing, assimilating.
For example, let’s say you hand your child a spherical object and tell him that it is a ball.
Over the next few weeks you show him other spheres—white and black ones, small ones, large ones, rubber ones, plastic ones—and they’re all balls. So your child starts to form some brain connections about balls: they are sphere shapes.
Then your child encounters a round Christmas tree ornament. It’s a sphere shape too. Is this a ball? No? Why not? What’s different about it? His brain is hard at work. He’s trying to figure out what might be the difference between those two spheres. He connects the ornament to spheres in his mind, but not to balls, and he tucks that idea away to explore further and clarify more as opportunity arises.
Later he sees a football. Now he has more categorizing, comparing, discriminating, testing, and assimilating to do and new ideas to explore: This thing is called a ball but it’s a different shape. Does this ball roll like the others? How might it be used? Does the color have anything to do with its being a ball?
Or how about this scenario: Mommy gave me hot tea when I was cold. Do I get hot tea every time I’m cold? Is that the only time I get hot tea?
Or this one: Your child sees a person standing on one leg. That looks different. What is different about it? Can I do that? Will it hurt? Should I try now?
A young child has a lot of brain connections to make about things around him.
And even more processing is taking place in conversations. He is learning a new language with all of its nuances and syntax and exceptions to syntax and figures of speech that don’t really mean what they seem to.
This is all happening with everything around him—indoors and outdoors—plus everything within his own body. He’s working on balance and distance discrimination and muscle control and speed judgment and force determination, not to mention experiencing his own emotions and learning how to handle them, along with handling other people’s emotions.
Your preschooler is busy learning all day every day. And if you don’t give him enough time and opportunity to work on those fundamentals, he will be at a disadvantage when it comes to schoolwork. All of those brain connections are essential to success in later life.
So what are the top two priorities for a parent of a preschooler? Charlotte Mason believed that the two priorities are working on good habits and providing a variety of good ideas (Parents and Children, p. 228).
The trick is that those two things don’t usually appear on a checklist. Somehow we feel as if we are accomplishing more, doing more for our children, if we focus on reading and writing and worksheets—things that we can measure easily and check off our list.
Don’t be misled. Just as a seed must have time to germinate and grow under the ground before it’s ever ready to sprout and blossom, so young children need time and opportunity to get those essential developmental pieces well established—firmly rooted—before they are ready to deal with abstract symbols on paper.
Charlotte respected the importance of that preparation time; she called it a “quiet growing time,” and she encouraged us to protect our young children from the outside pressures that try to push them into educational and social expectations before they’re ready (Home Education, p. 43).
Good habits and good ideas. Those are your top two priorities.
So what does that look like?
First, let’s talk about good habits.
Focus on setting up good habits now. Good habits will pave the way for smooth and easy days in your home, plus they will make things run so much smoother in the future when you do start formal lessons.
Habits are all about forming neuron tracks in the brain. Every time your child does a certain action, his brain fires in a specific neuron path. The more often that action is repeated, the more deeply ingrained that neuron path becomes. Over time that path becomes so deeply ingrained that those neurons fire automatically. The action has become a habit.
So since habits are formed by repetition, the sooner you get a habit started, the stronger it will become over the years and the longer it will benefit your child over his lifetime.
God made our brains, and our children’s brains, to form habits automatically. The key is consistency—repetition—whether we’re talking about putting your things away, saying please and thank you, obeying right away, brushing your teeth, or paying attention when someone is talking to you. All of those habits are formed by repetition.
So the question is not Is my child forming habits? The question is Which habits is my child forming?
Your child is forming habits one way or another, make no mistake about that. So how much better to make sure those habits are good habits that will take your child in the right direction in life and will also make your days much smoother and easier right now!
Working on good habits should be a top priority during the preschool years.
The other top priority should be providing a variety of good ideas. Ideas are to the mind what food is to the body. Ideas are what will give your child the best opportunities to do that mental work that we talked about earlier.
Just as your child’s body needs a good variety of nutritious, healthful food in order to work and grow at its best, so your child’s mind needs a good variety of interesting and living ideas to work and grow at its best.
And those ideas are most powerful when presented as you are going through your day, just informally along the way. Your child’s everyday experiences provide prime opportunities for learning through ideas.
What does that look like? If you want to create the optimal learning environment full of ideas for your preschooler, here are ten components you should build into his everyday life.
Young children learn mainly from relationships with people, not from a fact dump. As your child’s brain develops, he will at times need an adult to help him grasp a concept.
Conversations provide a window into what your child is thinking. Pay attention and listen for what he might need in order to figure out the concept for himself. If you can simply supply the missing piece, he will be able to confirm or refine his hypothesis and make a solid mental connection. Your job is to perhaps define an unknown term, or restate something in different words, or even just remind him of what he already knows. Good conversations are usually spontaneous; you never know when one will happen.
And, of course, don’t forget that your child is also just learning the language. Conversations contribute to that work too. Hearing a variety of words and practicing the skill of differentiating between sounds are foundations for learning to read. (And we won’t even mention picking up good sentence structure, correct grammar, and a wide vocabulary!) So don’t underestimate the power of conversations with your young child.
2. Playing through Senses
Give your preschooler plenty of time for free play and exploring with his five senses. Open-ended toys are best—the kind that can be used for many different kinds of play and imagined scenarios. Provide dress-up clothes, household items, blocks, and stuffed animals. Toys that help him explore movement and muscles are important too. Free play using his senses is one of the key ways he works on those fundamental skills, such as eye-hand coordination, balance, problem solving, visual-spatial discernment, and self-regulation. Most children develop those things naturally if given plenty of opportunity to move and play with open-ended toys, rather than being forced to sit still and do worksheets or computer lessons.
3. Time in Nature
While we’re talking about free play, keep in mind that the more your child can do that playing outside, the better! Nature is full of fresh air, great opportunities to develop mental and muscular skills, and chock full of open-ended toys. Plus, encouraging your child to get to know nature friends in his own yard lays the foundation for science studies later. Now is the time to become personally familiar with plants and animals, sun and shadows, birds and insects, weather, rocks, stars, and all of God’s creation right outside your door.
4. Books & Stories
You’ve probably heard about the importance of reading to your child every day, and I would agree. But I would also encourage you to be careful what you read. Select books thoughtfully. Remember, you want to give your child good ideas. So keep your radar up to catch the ideas that each book is presenting. Make sure the actions and attitudes and consequences that are portrayed will support the good habits and good choices you are trying to instill, not sabotage them. Look for interesting story lines told in good, conversational sentences—rather than short, choppy sentences of only one-syllable words. In other words, make sure the books are not talking baby-talk to your child.
And along with books, try storytelling too. If you have a few folk tales or Bible stories committed to memory, you can pull those out anywhere and build a special bond with your child as you look him in the eyes and tell one of his favorite tales, just for him.
5. Music & Art
Music and art also help you provide a wide variety of ideas for your child to experience and learn from. Sing together. Play music at nap time or at clean-up time. Encourage your child to experiment with how his body can move while listening to different kinds of music.
Surround your child with good artwork. And keep an eye on the illustrations in the books you’re reading to him; make sure that artwork is pleasant and cultivates his tastes for what is beautiful and good.
Then also give him opportunities to create his own art and handicrafts. A box full of raw materials—paper and tape and glue and safety scissors and markers and paint and empty cereal boxes or paper towel tubes, even cotton balls and drinking straws—all of those materials can provide hours of creativity and help your child work on fine-motor skills, problem solving, visual development, and eye-hand coordination.
Chores are a fabulous way to give your child ideas about work and personal responsibility and contributing to the household. Of course, you will want to level up or level down the tasks to fit your child’s abilities, but be sure to re-evaluate often. Don’t underestimate what your child can do with a little practice.
I’ve shared these five steps before, but let me mention them again. You can teach your child any task by following this five-step process:
- I do and you watch.
- I do and you help.
- You do and I help.
- You do and I watch.
- You do and I inspect.
Take your time and work through the steps at your child’s pace. The preschool years are a natural time to begin teaching personal responsibility and chores. Take advantage of your child’s natural interest in work around the house now and invite him to help. He will learn much in the process.
7. Spiritual Life
Be sure to include ideas about God in your preschooler’s daily life. Pray together. Read or tell Bible stories to him. Point out nature as God’s handiwork. And, of course, model reverence for God and His Word. In this area especially, your child will pick up much by observing you.
While reading and writing are not top priorities (because they deal with abstract symbols on paper rather than tangible items that can be handled), you can still include some gentle ideas about written language in your child’s day. Get him some letters than he can handle and play with. They might be wooden blocks with letters on them or magnetic letters or foam letters—something that he can pick up and manipulate. Then you can incidentally introduce the letter names as he is playing, just as you do the names of his other toys. (I’ve talked about this at length in a video on teaching your child how to read.)
Also get a few ABC books and put them in the pile along with all the rest of the books you will be reading to your child. ABC books reinforce the letter names and also gently introduce the idea of the sounds that the letters represent. So go ahead and read ABC books together, but don’t use them as a formal lesson time. Let your child lead the way when it comes to reading and writing; answer his questions, but don’t push.
One more informal thing you can do in this area: have fun with rhymes. Rhyming words are a foundational concept in learning how to read. So introduce some fun rhymes and enjoy playing with words together.
9. Math Concepts
There are plenty of math concepts and ideas for your child to explore without requiring him to deal with abstract symbols on paper. Use tangible items in his everyday life to introduce concepts like
- Size—big, little, larger than
- Distance—How many jumps will it take to get to that tree? Later after he’s had experience with this concept, ask him to estimate first and then jump to find out.
- Weight—heavy, light, heavier than
- Directions—up, down, behind, in front, between, beside, left, right
You get the idea. Those are all math concepts, and the preschool years are prime time to introduce those ideas and give your child plenty of time to explore them in order to make those fundamental brain connections. The more he grasps these concepts from his firsthand experience, the easier math lessons will be later when he begins to deal with symbols on paper. For now, keep the emphasis on the ideas and the things, not on the symbols or memorizing rote facts.
10. Open-Ended Routine
If there is one thing that is crucial in the preschool years, it is flexibility with time. You never know when an idea will hit home and your child will be ready to explore it. You never know when a conversation will turn into a teachable moment. The more you are tied to a clock, the less flexibility you will have to respond to those moments when they appear. You can’t force your child to learn on your timetable.
So keep your young child’s daily schedule more of an open-ended routine: first, we will get dressed, then we will eat breakfast, then we will do chores, then we will play outside. A routine is not driven by the clock; it is a sequence of events. When we finish one event, we move on to the next.
Young children need the security of a regular routine, but don’t confuse that with a regimented timetable. Keep margin in your daily routine: time for exploring and talking about ideas and—very important—time to think about those ideas. Be sure to include some “down time” in your preschooler’s day. It will benefit him and you!
Your preschooler is doing a lot of work during the first six years of his life. Your job is not to try to regiment his learning or dictate what he should learn when and how. No, your job is to use these years to work on good habits and to make sure he has access to a wide variety of ideas. Ideas are what will feed his mind and heart and provide lots of opportunities for him to work on his brain connections. Those are your two top priorities for preschool: habits and ideas.
Protect that “quiet growing time” and you will see your child send down deep roots and flourish.