An Open Letter to Lenore 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
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.
May 10, 2014