Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Subtle Beauty of Child Development



There is has been a lot of talk in the media about rigorous, academic preschools meant to ensure a child’s future academic (if not career) success. First, there was the story of the woman in New York who sued a preschool when she felt it did not adequately prepare her daughter for a high-stakes intelligence test required to enter a competitive private school. She claimed the preschool was not a school, but simply a big “playroom.” 

Then there was the article in the New York Times about Kumon and other tutoring companies catering to younger clientele (as young as 2). This prompted what I felt was a very thoughtful piece by Ellen Galinsky who offered a more middle-of-the road approach to young children’s education. She aptly points out that while children do learn skills from the Kumon-style approach, the key component is not so much the flashcards and puzzles, but the presence of an engaged adult who is eager to teach and learn. In the case of Kumon, this adult happens to be a “teacher” rather than a parent. Do parents feel inadequate to be a teacher/guide/observer with their child? Or are they simply to busy to take on this role and find it easier to hand it over to the tutoring businesses?

Here’s what we know from a research perspective: play is crucial to preschool-aged children. The playground is the “testing ground” for not only the academic skills they will need later, but perhaps more importantly, the social skills they will need to succeed in school and in life. More and more research is showing how children who lack social skills often fail to thrive in school, even though they are academically capable, because the social aspect is so important. Why is this? 

Because interaction with peers is one of the ways children learn not only learn how to “play nice” but it is how they learn to control their own emotions and behavior. This self-control, in turn, is one of the best predictors of academic and career success. In fact, some studies have shown that training in social and emotional skills is as beneficial as academic training in helping students who are struggling in school. Furthermore, developmental scientists will tell you that young children learn concepts of math, sciences, and language better in a play-based setting than a “drill-and-kill” rote learning setting offered by many “academic” preschools, due in large part to the social interaction that is involved in play-based learning.

Beyond the research, however, is the question of why? Why do many parents feel the need or pressure to enroll their young children in such academically rigorous preschools? Although a lack of understanding of child development may be part of the issue, I think other factors must be at play. One issue may be the recent economic decline. Has the economic downturn of recent years made parents so fearful of their children’s career future that they are resorting to academic preschools out of fear? This may be part of the motivation for many parents.

Additionally, I do feel that we have lost some understanding of subtlety in this country. By that I mean that there seems to be an emphasis on direct results, black-and-white answers, etc. The interesting thing about child development is that it is subtle in so many ways. If you watch a child carefully over the course of many months (if not years) you will see them gradually learn concepts, language, ideas, but you have to watch closely. You will not see quick results overnight with most aspects of child development. I think this is why play-based preschools are not as attractive to many parents, especially those parents that are the results-oriented, pressure-driven type. 

Over the course of time, a child will learn about concepts of volume, fractions, and density while playing with water and sand on the playground. This type of learning, however, is much more subtle than a child being able to recite some flashcards that they reviewed for a week straight. A child in a play-based preschool may not be able to tell you straight out that 2 + 2 = 4, but I imagine if you asked them to pick up 4 balls, they would know what to do. I admit that seeing a child recite answers to questions that you’ve reviewed with them is somewhat gratifying to us as adults, but is the other, more subtle type of learning any less valuable?

Although my son is only 2 years old, I have already seen evidence of this difference in learning. Lately I’ve been working with him on learning colors. I’ll point out things at the store and name their color or mention the colors of animals, etc. Now, if I straight out ask him what color an object is, he will inevitably get it wrong. However, if he wants an object and is pointing to it and asking for it, he will almost always call it the correct color (“blue one”). There is something to be said for a child’s intrinsic motivation to learn what important to them, not necessarily what’s important to us.



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