Young children are the mensches of the world. (in Yiddish, a Mensch is a Good Person. Someone who does the honorable thing.) They don’t know that their future depends upon teachers whounderstand child development. but they believe that adults are their guideposts, their role models, their wise ones. If an adult gives them a worksheet to do in the name of learning, they will gamely attempt it, especially if that adult gushes over their “good” result. If they are asked to make a spider from a paper plate and pipe cleaners, one that looks just like their teacher’s, they will, maybe grudgingly, maybe happily, try to do just that. Their teacher may say, “No, the pipe cleaner should be here, not there,” preserving their status as experts on bug-making. You can always depend on children to try to please, even as they secretly internalize the message that they themselves are deficient in some way. They don’t know that theirarts activities should be for them, not for their teachers.
My college students say that parents are worried about their threes being ready for kindergarten. Threes! The parents want their children to work on letter recognition and phonics. They do not understand child development. This is an agonizing frustration for teachers who understand that a child develops as a whole, in all developmental domains. That they mustn’t be educated as if they are loosely organized piles of parts labeled “Letters,” “Numbers,” and “Good Handwriting.” If those parents decide their children need “academics,”they might choose to go elsewhere, perhaps to a center that (cynically?) offers excellent preparation for grade school.The mensch/child will go on to please another set of narrowly focused adults.
Parents need to know that learning is best done in the broad context of real life.A program that creates an environment where children can play over reasonably long periods of time, experimenting, building,drawing, and generally feeding their insatiable appetite for novel experience, is a program where children learn what will help them in the future. Doing this under the supervision of expert adults who know how to observe, take note, document, and provide materials is also a necessary component. These adults also must be in love with children, and be willing to mentor to their families. Letters, numbers and handwriting happen, in these excellent programs, because children really do want to learn them in context. They are useful tools in the pursuit of creating, exploring, and then representing what they have accomplished. If their amazing teachers document this learning, demonstrating that learning is, indeed, happening, parents will relax, and , perhaps, be persuaded to be involved in the program rather than fighting it.
Parents, many of us have been where you are now, wanting the best for our precious children. Don’t let programs take advantage of their good will and eagerness to please. Don’t be misled. Educate yourself about what really works in early childhood education, and choose what gives your child the opportunity to create meaningful experiences with their peers. Consult your own child within. Ask that child if a program seems exciting and creative. Then go with that insight. Your little mensch will thank you.