Early Learning versus Friends and Free Play: have we got our priorities wrong?

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June 7, 2013

in Early Learning, Home schooling, preschool education, Raising children

Today I want to share my thoughts about a controversial topic that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Over the last year, I have had a long struggle teaching my 2.5 year old road safety, and she still thinks it’s funny to just run onto the street without checking if a car is coming. Often, I have the baby in a carrier or in the buggy and I can’t run fast enough to catch her. I’ll be very honest with you, about five times or so in the last year, it is only God or a guardian angel who has kept her alive. With bad luck, she could have been run over by a car. And it makes me feel ridiculous trying to teach a toddler to read or to have perfect pitch when she might get hit by a car before she ever reaches school age. Have I got my priorities I wrong? That’s not to say I don’t try to teach her road safety, of course, but so far my efforts have been fruitless (or at least, results have not been perfect, she listens to me 90% of the time, but what if she gets killed in the other 10%?). It reminded me of a phrase I heard promoting teaching swimming rather than reading to young children, it went “what good is it to you that your child could read at three when he drowned aged six because he couldn’t swim?”. Christine Gross-Loh expressed a similar view in a recent Huffington Post column called “the milestones that matter most”, suggesting that Americans should stop agonising over cognitive skills and focus on teaching their kids kindness, respect and responsibility. So, has the Early Learning crowd got their priorities all wrong? Am I endangering my children by teaching them to read instead of focusing on road safety?

First of all, let me state clearly that I absolutely agree safety of the child must be the absolute priority. Second right after safety comes happiness, and since this is a vague concept, I think being able to form friendships, getting along with other people and finding a purpose in life (and hence getting used to the idea that you need to serve your community) all form the basis of being a happy person. In that sense, I agree with those who advocate plenty of free play and social interaction for young children. Where I part ways with them is when they criticise early learning and suggest that it has to come at the expense of other more useful skills that could be learnt in the meantime.

The day has 24 hours, and let’s assume your little one is awake for 12 hours of the day. Let me share how I integrate early learning into our days and you will see it does not come at the expense of any other important learning. I was very inspired by Krista Guerrero’s suggestion on her Monkisee page that the best approach is to start the day with early learning so that you don’t feel like you haven’t done anything all day and are trying to catch up. If your toddler wakes up at 6am and you spend the first 30min to an hour on learning, you can do playdates and playgrounds all the rest of the day and feel like you are taking care of everything. What I usually do when my daughter wakes up is to go to her room, cuddle up in bed with her and read books or sing songs together. We spend half an hour to an hour just reading stories, learning about animals, colours, singing folk songs, nursery rhymes and the ABC songs, or counting animals in the books. At 7am the baby tends to wake up, and then I feed her, my older daughter helps me change and dress her and then we go to the living room and do a bit of tummy time with the baby. We might also play lego, do a few jigsaws, play the guitar and sing songs. Now I’ve started showing them a 5 minute lesson of Brillkids’ Little Musician as well in the morning.

Then we have breakfast, and after that we spend almost all day out and about, on the playground, in the park, at the library, meeting friends, going swimming. The older one has a two hour nap at noon as well. She often spends 3 hours on the playground or in the park in the morning, falls asleep on the way back home, naps for two hours, has a snack and is out and about again. I try to get her together with other children all the time and she loves it. I love watching her play with other children and how she bonds with them and enjoys being silly. Usually, we only get back from those playdates or outdoor activities around 6 or 7pm, and then I let her play educational apps on the ipad while I bring the baby to bed. She might watch a few Monkisee clips on youtube, play Matrix Match and Maths 3-5, and when she’s had enough she’s allowed a few Peppa Pig cartoons as well to relax. When the baby is asleep, we go to the kitchen together and she helps us prepare dinner and set the table. I have taught her to unload the dishwasher and recently also to load it with dirty dishes, she can throw away rubbish into the correct bin (plastic and other), and she loves to stir food, fill rice on plates, or cut cucumber or cheese. In the morning, she helps me make espresso, too; she’s the one who heaps spoons of coffee into my espresso maker, and then we sit and listen to the sound and when it starts bubbling, we open it and watch the espresso coming out. She loves watching the bubbles in our rice maker as well when the rice is almost done.

After dinner, it’s bedtime, and this is where I sneak in more learning. Just like in the morning, we sing songs and read books and cuddle. I am very patient because I really enjoy this time. No tantrums, no distractions, just real quality time. It usually takes about an hour till she actually falls asleep, and it even used to take about two hours, and I remember my friends being so amazed how I could be so patient. But for me, at least on most days, bringing my children to bed is not a chore, it’s a lovely part of the day, and it is also an investment. Reading stories and singing songs is not a waste of time, it’s a way to bond, to learn, to pass on my culture.

So as you see, one can integrate learning into daily life, and sneak in intellectual learning during the first and last hours of the day, and focus on teaching safety, kindness, friendships, and good behaviour all the rest of the day. Yes, unlike some other parents, it’s important to me that my children can read early and become very good at maths (or at least, I want to do everything in my power to facilitate this). But this does not mean that I deprioritize safety or social skills. In fact, I believe that ┬áparents who care enough to read with their children every day are likely to be the ones who also care to teach their children many other important skills. We really shouldn’t blame early learners for the amount of kids who lack social skills. At the same time, I know what I am doing is not perfect. Especially every time my daughter tries to run onto the street I feel like a total failure as a parent. If you have any tips to share how to make her understand how serious this is, please do!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Push PLAY Learning July 16, 2013 at 5:01 AM

I had the same issue with my oldest boy. Eventually he stopped doing it, but it can feel so overwhelming when you have another baby in hand. There is something that happens when they hit 3, and then even so when they hit 4. They truly grow in maturity a lot. It will get better and it’s certainly not a reflection of you. I think you are doing awesome.

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