Natural play has its merits but please don't dismiss all early education. Amber Pawlik

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An Open Letter to Lenore Skenazy

Ms. Skenazy:

First of all, let me say that I am appreciative of your blog, Free Range Kids and what you have brought to the mommy wars. I have had to suffer my share of raised eyebrows from friends and relatives, such as when I tell them I let my 2-year-old use a steak knife to cut a hardboiled egg. (Really, he did well! It's age appropriate!) However, I take much issue with a recent article you posted, "College Prep for Kindergartners?"

In this article, you rightly point out some terrible teaching methods applied to kindergartners, including canceling a school play to devote time to college preparation (!?) and not letting children solve a riddle on popsicles that they had found, instead forcing them to listen to a planned lecture on the alphabet.

What I take issue with is the advocacy of free, natural play as the only guiding principle for children so young, seemingly dismissive of all early education. I agree that kindergartners should not be preparing for college or listening to abstract lectures, but the ages of 3-7 are a ripe time for learning many things, including reading, counting, shapes, and also many practical life skills such as washing and dressing themselves. It is true, as you point out, that children of this age will naturally want to learn and do best in a free environment (i.e. hands-on work, not lectures) but the stimuli provided should ideally be thoughtful activities, planned and guided by adults knowledgeable about child development. The stimuli provided would be more than the "junkyard playground," made popular by a recent Atlantic article.

An approach that does this well is Montessori. Take learning how to read. The children, usually at around age 4, do activities that to them seem like fun and which they simply doŚwithout any teacher hovering over them. The activities include practicing with a pencil by tracing shapes and coloring them in; tracing sandpaper letters while being taught the sound each makes; and composing simple words via phonics with cut-out moveable letters. What happens after doing these activities is the children look at a pencil and a piece of paper one day and realize they can write. It happens spontaneously! This approach is very free, yet still guided by thoughtful adults, who have as their aim the development of the child's mind.

The example you give of how a completely hands off approach to early child development is effective is learning how to speak. "But unleashed from lesson plans, kids are on fire to learn. Need proof? They all learn how to speak! No classes required!" Having recently watched my toddler go through a language explosion, I would argue that not only can stimuli, specifically books, accelerate their language development; it is also very possible for unnecessary speech delays to occur if parents don't give the proper stimuli to their children. I know a child who, at older than 2, still speaks mostly gibberish. From his mother, I know she tried to introduce him to books, but she was not able to keep his attention. I had a similar problem until I started to use the 3 stages of knowledge presented by Montessori with my 18-month old son. With the 3 stages (as applied to picture books), the caregiver starts by pointing out what objects are (Stage 1). After doing this many times, they ask, perhaps, "Which one is the cow?" If the child doesn't answer correctly, the caregiver immediately goes back to Stage 1. If they do well, the child can graduate to Stage 3 where the caregiver points to an object and asks, "What is this?" I think too many parents try to "quiz" their child by asking them to point to objects they don't know very well. Instead, with the 3 Stages approach, the focus is on repetition, and questions are not quizzes but rather a visible demonstration of their success, which infuses them with confidence. At 18 months, children are expected to have a vocabulary of 20 words or more. My son easily had a vocabulary of 100 words or more. As for the boy I know who still speaks gibberish at 2, will he likely learn to speak? Yes, of courseŚwell enough anyway. (And, also, most people do not learn to speak and write as well as they could.) But in the meantime, dealing with what can be a very uncooperative 2-year old is made that much more difficult, as he cannot verbalize what he wants. I see it very much as an unnecessary cognitive delay which could potentially have a snowball effect with future development.

A more natural approach to child development certainly has its merits, but please don't dismiss all guided efforts to early education. It is the development of the human mind that should be the central focus of raising and educating children.

Very Respectfully,

Amber Pawlik

Amber Pawlik
May 10, 2014

The Lucky Mom: How to have a Happy Infant through Respect, Observation, and Understanding
Amber Pawlik
This book is a guide to being that "lucky" parent with the happy baby. It is a very concise book with thoroughly cross-referenced information for parents regarding sleeping and eating habits and the intellectual and physical growth of an infant. A philosophy is presented of respecting the child where the parent observes the child for signs of hunger, sleep, or other needs, and responds appropriately. This book will give you much of the information you need as a parent in just a few hours!

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