Aside from all the toys, games, books and music your child experiences at home, some parents wonder if they should provide an outside environment for different types of stimulation. When is a child ready for preschool? Should you begin teaching math before your child begins school?
Pre-School Academic Learning
Should you follow one of the various programs available today that urge parents to help their children's mental development by teaching them to read, do math, and learn foreign languages while they are still babies? The controversy may never be definitely resolved. In fact, some eye specialists have warned that visual skills needed for working with print do not fully evolve until a child is about six years old, and such early activity may heighten the possibility of vision problems. Other experts do not see a link between early reading and vision difficulties.
Most educators say imaginative play is far more important than academic learning for any preschool-age child. Programs designed to educate your child or raise his IQ probably do no real harm to a child who is either only bored and confused by them or who seems to enjoy them, but they probably do not do a great deal of good, either. Much research suggests that most children read at age six or seven, when real lessons are started.
Skip formal lessons at home. Pioneer researcher Arnold Gesell recommended that as much flexibility be used in matters of academic readiness as in those of walking readiness. The conviction that it was actually harmful for children to learn to read before they went to school is outdated now, and there are children who, in effect, teach themselves the skill. This is a heady, delightful boost to a child's ego, an accomplishment as great as the first independent steps she took. If your child is full of questions about numbers and letters, by all means answer them. Give the child as much information as she wants, but do not waste time for either of you in formal schoolroom lessons.
Teach your child to think and remember. What you can do is help any child -- gifted or average -- to learn to think and to remember, both skills she needs. Give your toddler practice in comparing and classifying by sorting laundry, arranging a collection of pretty stones picked up on walks first by size and then by color, and stacking pans in the cupboard. Ask your preschooler to conjecture about situations. For example, why is the dog across the street limping? Are the children in the picture happy or sad? Ask the child for her reasons or observations. Is a rejected food too soft, too crisp, too sour, too sweet? Why does it seem as if it will rain today?
Your toddler won't be able to remember what you say will happen a week from Tuesday, but what's coming after nap time presents no problems. Stretch out the time lag, a little at a time. She won't remember a series of instructions, but she can handle two commands, such as, "Pick up your book and put it on the shelf." Give three commands next time.
The Question of Preschool
Another question about early education often bothers parents of toddlers: Is nursery school or preschool necessary, advisable, or even good for very young children? Some parents don't consider it; their children will spend plenty of time in school later, they say. Others believe the social experience is important for their children, and learning to perform such tasks as forming a line, sitting still for a period of time, and paying attention to a teacher gives a child a good start in regular school.
Working parents often choose the preschool experience for their children instead of babysitters or ordinary child care for a variety of reasons, ranging from convenience and expense to the conviction that the experience is valuable. Some researchers have said children do not have the minimum level of socialization necessary for successful experiences in any kind of school until the age of three. At that age they begin to relate to other children as helpmates in carrying out such activities as building and destroying, playing, and getting into mischief.
Choosing a preschool. In choosing any nursery school or preschool, it is important first to decide just what it is you want from the facility and what you think will most benefit your child. Is it simply the opportunity for socialization with other children? Preparation for academic education? An atmosphere that concentrates on imaginative and creative activities? Ask yourself, too, if your child is more apt to thrive in a school where the program is very structured or in one where the children are given some leeway in choosing their activities. Your child's personality should be a major factor in your decision about the type of school he attends.
Visit alone. Visit any school alone at least once, so you can talk with staff members and observe them closely as they interact with the children. Stay for several hours, so you can see how the program works. If the school is a large one, find out how the children are split up (strictly by age or in groups of all ages) and into what size groups. Determine the teacher-child ratio and question the director or teachers about the school's policies and theories of discipline. Watch to see how staff members handle the inevitable conflicts between children. Look carefully at the school's facilities. Is play equipment safe and in good condition and is there enough of it for the number of children enrolled? Are the toys and art supplies adequate? Ask what they serve for snacks or meals.
Visit with your child. When you have found the school you think best, take your child to visit. If you have decided he will definitely attend, do not ask questions that give your child an opportunity to say no; make them open-ended, for example, "What area of the big playroom do you think you'll like best?" rather than "Do you want to go there every day?" Be prepared to be put on a waiting list. When your child starts attending, try to keep your home environment very stable. The first weeks your child first attends school are not good ones for you to move, start a new job, or make other big changes in your family life.
Whether or not your child attends preschool, you can help him develop thinking and memory skills with informal practice sorting, reasoning and following instructions. There's no evidence that academic learning like math and learning to read is beneficial before your child begins school, so don't frustrate yourself and your child by trying to implement formal lessons. As you read in this article, there are hundreds of ways to stimulate your child's mind with fun, educational experiences -- no formal training necessary.
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