Prather Pediatric and Allergy Center - Ask Doctor Brent

Printer Friendly Version

Title: Preparing Our Children For "Real" Learning

Category: Child Care


We see many programs advertized to advance our children's academic ability. There are flash card programs, worksheet programs, structured lessons, memory drills and numerous other attempts to make our children smarter. Are these really preparing our children to think and to be better scholars in later life? The answer from most all of the research coming out is a definite "NO"!

The American Academy of Pediatrics feels very strongly that these early high pressure learning programs are not emotionally healthy for our children and actually may do harm and delay true learning later. Developmentally, children learn to read and write when their brain is ready and has learned several other skills beforehand. These skills include being able to speak and associate specific sounds with specific words. They begin to put the words together communicating ideas, feelings and needs. This first set of symbols must be well established before they can begin to string them together into a second set of more abstract symbols; in other words, several letters making up a word, several words making up a senteance. This manipulation of concepts in their mind and on paper requires really complex thinking and toddlers are not physically and mentally ready for that type of thinking. They are more than busy enough trying to incorporate the first set of symbols which are the sound symbols of our language. These later allow them to communicate in phrases and sentences. Certainly they can memorize ABCs and count 1 to 10. This is fine; but they should not be pushed to recognize hundreds of short words on cue cards or count to 100 because it is not true learning. Rather, it is just simple rote memorization. The noted Swiss researcher, Jean Piaget, spent his lifetime observing children learning to think and reason. He concluded that learning cute tricks such as counting to high numbers and reciting letters at a young age truly had nothing to do with more complex intellectual development and was simply a stimulus response/reward mechanism. The danger in pushing kids to repeat the letters and numbers is that they might not get the more important experiences they need to fully develop their intellectual groundwork for later learning.

How can we help our children with the needed preparation for true learning when they are physically, mentally and emotionally ready? There are several things we can do. First, we can provide as many sensory experiences as possible for our children. In other words, let them experience the five senses on a daily basis with lots of good creative play in the house and in the yard. Point out things they are seeing, feeling, touching, tasting and hearing on a daily basis. Let them enjoy the beauty around them and their natural curiosity will begin to make sense of their environment. This can be done when bathing our kids with things that they see in the tub. It can be done when we are changing their diaper by singing to them and reciting nursery rhymes. It can be done when they are playing in the yard as they fall, as they jump up, as they hide behind a tree, as they see their favorite aunt or uncle walking up to meet them, or any other daily experience they encounter. This whole body involvement in learning allows the later mental learning to work even better.

Get your children exposed to print and set a good example by reading a lot yourself. Let them pick up any simple toys available to them and encourage them to pretend. Let them draw with large crayons on a big piece of paper and pretend to write at whatever age they are ready. Encourage their oral language development. Cut down on the TV time in the family and spend more time reading to your children and talking to them. Expose them to as many different real life experiences as possible with trips to the library, the zoo, the fire house and friends' and neighbors, homes. When they begin to connect all these experiences as they are growing older, their mind will be better prepared for sound learning. They will have some first hand knowledge of the things they are reading about and it will all come together a lot easier for them.

Finally, I think, the best way to promote learning in our children is to make a lifetime of learning ourselves. We can show our children how learning new things is a true joy and a blessing for all of us. Hopefully, with this family attitude and example, our children will be excited about school and reading and stretching themselves intellectually all their life.