The marketing of educational products and programmes can make us fear that our children are missing out and will be left behind other children if they do not experience or get these.
We can worry too, that we may be harming our children's future achievement at school and beyond if we don't get them doing structured activities.
As parents we want the best for our children. But more is not always best.
There is a real risk of children being overloaded with educational activities.
1. Could the early childhood education facility be providing too much in the way of activities, i.e. overloading the children with activities and structured exercises, tasks and even work sheets?
2. Should we be accepting and buying into the marketing and all the hype around school prep and getting children “ready for school” programs?
3. Is there a healthy balance between educational activities and allowing children to be children?
4. When and why should we be taking children to language classes, dancing classes, music classes, and swimming (etc) over and above the standard activities offered by early childhood education services?
5. Do parents and children have enough unstructured and uninterpreted time together - or has life become a big rush between waking, rushing to activities and then sleeping again?
The kind of learning that benefits young children most
Lots of time for free play to allow for children’s interests to flow in a non-pressured supportive environment is what research shows to really matter for the best outcomes for children.
This is what early childhood teachers call “authentic” learning – it’s real and it makes sense to children.
Play based education is rich with learning and can naturally contain and involve literacy, numeracy, social learning, the arts, science, etc., It's meaningful learning that makes sense to a child.
Be Ready for School Programmes
Teachers will tell you that there is no need for children to be given worksheets, readers, and specific tasks to prepare them for school.
A high quality early childhood education service will provide a developmentally holistic and integrated play based curriculum – and not skill-teach and drill children for six months or so before starting school.
Starting school earlier
Starting school earlier does not always translate to children having higher achievement compared to children with a delayed start.
For example, in Scandinavian countries there is a belief that children aren’t ready to start a formal education until Age 7 and international studies have shown their children perform often much better in literacy and numeracy in later years for this.
A case for extra-curricular activities
There is a case for giving children extra activities to give children an educational edge but do this with caution. Watch that ‘overload’ does not occur. Make sure children still have free time and are under no pressure to ‘perform’. During the early years the focus on learning should be about development. Children learn and gain skills at different rates.
Whether to enrol or not in extra language classes, dancing classes (etc.) all depends on the child and family and how important those activities are. For example, a child adopted from Russia by New Zealand English speaking parents would likely benefit from participating in a Russian speaking group regularly from a young age to retain his/her native language. Going to a dance class can be fun for a child, if it's what the child wants to do and is not forced to do.
Swimming classes can be important for the child’s safety and confidence around water.
Taking time to make time for the greatest rewards
The best approach for all young children is to keep in balance the time children have in organised activities so that there is also unscheduled/flexible time.
It’s important for children to have relaxed non-pressured time to build and enjoy relationships, to think, to develop imagination and individuality, and have a rich and diverse range of experiences.
The greatest gift a parent can give to a young child under 5 is time. Time to talk, time to cuddle, time to play, to have a range of experiences that may include buying groceries at the supermarket, playing on the beach, picking blueberries, and reading a book together (as opposed to organised/scheduled activities).
Children need to have a childhood. A childhood that is pressured and involves the child constantly engaged in activities focused on his/ her future does not allow the child to enjoy and live much in the present.
* This article was drafted by Dr Sarah Alexander, parent of 5 children, an early childhood practitioner and expert on learning and teaching.
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