The 18 month-olds sit in the "play"groups in their diapers, with a pen stuck into their stubby fingers. Some prestigious preschools requires registration from birth (or you'll be on the waiting list). Oh, God forbid it that we be on waiting lists! We have to be the first few, if not the first.
Gifted testing at preschool level seems to be the norm around me and parents have to decide if their children should go on the accelerated paths, or stay "common".
No, most are not overly anxious parents (or the colloquially known as "kiasu" ones in Singapore). We don't "expect" our children to be gifted (not all anyway) and we don't want them to be all valedictorians of their pre-kindergarten class; we just don't want to be "behind". On the waiting list. We don't mind it to be behind; but what about our children? The ones we took so much pain, made so many sacrifices and went through much "against th current" to birth and raise? Do we dare to shortchange them? What will happen to their future? All the good intentions, I know.
To be very honest, we feel if we were to stay in Singapore, we might one day feel the same "what can I do?" spirit deep in us and normalize that feeling. Not that the competitiveness is less in the States, but with more people in the country (well, much much more) there is the dilution effect. More variations of parenting and education are widely acceptable.
I cannot and will never declare any expertise in this area. I have only raised one and a half children beyond the "preschool" age and two and half more on the way. Yet I have a strong burden toward advocating for children to regain their childhood. Childhood they rightfully have. Childhood we have snatched from their hands unaware. In the midst of all our good intentions.
In our house, this is how we do early childhood "education", or education before four years of age. It it not the ultimate truth; it is the Su way of how our children learn and grow and why.
1. We spend most of our time with our family, in the home.
When our young children spend most of their time with us, in the home, they build the foundation of security firmly into their hearts. Within the familiarity of the home, learning takes place without other "distractions". They get to interact with the family on a deep level and they soak in the dynamics, values and relational skills of the family even before they speak the first word. They are exposed to the language/s used in the family. We get to immerse them in social skills and manners we deem to be pleasing to God. As they live life with us, they learn how the house is maintained, how meals are prepared, how we treat family members and care for other people and how we enjoy meals with good table manners.
Someone wise who has walked before me on the road of homeschooling advised me when I was starting on my journey, "During their younger years, your goal is to teach them to obey." Character formation starts very very young, younger than we thought. Before any learning can take place, a child needs to learn to be attentive, to obey and mind his or her parents/teacher. I do not speak of this in an authoritarian, tyrannic way; but the first thing a child has to learn is to respect the authority of parents. God demands of that from the bible. And we ought to be responsible in expecting nothing less, in the most loving manner possible. Many have asked "Do you find it a problem being a mother AND a teacher to your children? Do they obey when you teach?" My response is, a mother should be a teacher, whether you homeschool or not. And if they do not obey, it does not matter if you are taking the role of a teacher or mother; the issue lies with obedience.
2. They play. A lot.
Our kids play, almost all the time. When Ian was the only child, he loves to read and he does that a lot without me initiating. As he grew into toddlerhood, he found trains and drawing. As his sisters came along, it was a real joy to see the girls being inaugurated into their playtime.
Sometimes we as parents play with them. Many other times we see creativity at its best when they are "left to themselves". All sorts of pretend play and collaborative play happens. They might be pretending to be a club, or school, or fort. Or they might be playing trains, babies, or simply drawing together at the dining table. When the weather permits, we get outdoor fun too.
For reasons I cannot fully explain, play unleash something in children. They engage their creativity, social interactive skills, language formation and motor skills. Play is the best learning language for young children. In an unadulterated way.
3. We read. They read.
When our kids are little we read to them, or they hear us reading to their siblings. I like reading and even though we do not do read-alouds as much as we hope to, this is one of the important part of our family life.
Children learn a lot through being read to. They learn new words, new phrases, imaginative descriptions, story formation and proper grammar. They "read" on their own too, when they were little; therefore it is kind of nice if we have well illustrated books.
We try to select books that talk about values we are in agreement with and also books that have a nice story line instead of meaningless words. That is, we choose books that we actually enjoy reading aloud.
4. They get limited screen time
We do not have a TV at home and it was intentionally so. Many people are shocked at this but we really don't miss it. Experts (whoever they are) determine now that TV before age of two is detrimental to the development of children. If we were to see the content of TV, we can easily understand why. I was surprised when I screen through the video/cartoon shows for children, many do not pass my standard of proper values, speech and behavior.
They do get 30mins of video time everyday though, beginning age 2 or 3. They watch sesame street, Berenstain bears, Franklin, Thomas, or other mini shows without ads. Even these shows need to be censored at times.
With the introduction of iPad into our family (Colleen was 5, Emma 3 and Ian 7) I use it for school 3 days a week and they get to play with some fun, possibly educational, apps that I screened through. 15 mins each time.
Because of the relatively short screen time, the children had to come up with other stuff to play with (or books to read) during other times and that is more helpful for their learning.
5. We talk.
I did not learn this with my firstborn. He was a late speaker; thus, we do not carry enough conversations with him. As the family grew, we get more and more used to talking with little children, even when they cannot verbalize much.
Since our children are with us majority of the time, we get to converse with them quite a lot throughout the day. We talk with them at play, at meals, at rest time. We find it interesting our children tend to have the best conversations with us during mealtimes; as food are ingested, thoughts, reminiscing memories flowed out of them.
Sometimes we talk about important deep subjects like heaven and our faith. Sometimes we get goofy and talk about funny things. Conversations build up their vocabulary and social skills. And most importantly, it tightens our relationship with them bit by bit. Relationship is the most important ingredient to successful education; obedience comes much easier with a deeply connected relationship.
We also talk about many different things of the world (can Jesus understand Chinese? Why can't the baby sit on her own? When will I have a loose tooth?) throughout the day and they ask questions about everything under the sun that they are curious about. This is the best kind of early childhood education. Whet their appetite of knowledge; they will come to you time and time again to learn.
6. And yes, we do "school" too.
I deliberately did not start any form of sit-down school for my firstborn until he was four. I was not in a rush. At four years, I started "table time" with him whereby we sit down for 30 minutes a day doing some "work", whatever is interesting and fun. The purpose was not to learn about the alphabets or numbers (we learned that while we played, walked around, read, talked...) but to start training him to be focused on a task, to be able to sit for work.
Our girls joined their older siblings early, just because we had school time and they wanted to be part of it. I gave them some "work" at times, made folder games, put together "educational" puzzles, toys and also allowed them to join in much of the hands-on activities of the older siblings' school. Again the purpose was not for them to "learn" (though they do); it was for them to be part of the family and for them to learn to sit with us.
There is no need for refusing their growth (like we did) but the key is there is no need to get upset over their "l-l-l-l-p" in their abc song either.
During the 2-4 years, developmental growth is phenomenal. They are very busy! They learn to use the potty, ditch the highchair and eat on their own, learn to be an older sibling for the first time. Some had to put away their binkies, lovies or comfort of parents being with them when they sleep. They learn to talk, converse and assert themselves. Their gross motor skills increase as they are more independent at the playground. They may drop naps, use the cup and dress themselves.
There is a time for everything. There is a time for for grammar drills, sentence constructions, math facts and worksheets and 2-4 year olds are not the time. Those exuberant years are best used to pound in the foundation of faith, family and joy of life. Those are the most exploratory, carefree, developmentally explosive-growing years. Grab on them! Guard them zealously and let your child play and love learning!
Intellectual development sometimes has to go in line with other development. Being smart academically does not mean a child has the social maturity to deal with the information they learn. I cringe when I hear about any child prodigy who goes to college at 12 years old. On the onset it sounds like a dream; but how does a 12 year old interact socially with the 18 to 20 year olds on the campus? What about emotional maturity? How do they handle their emotions as a young person? Can the accelerated growth of the mind support the growth of the heart? Or vice versa?
We also need to reevaluate the importance of character versus achievement. If we are hung up on their achievement, we may end up with a child who can recite the times-table at 5 years old and yet does not know to initiate "thank you", "please", "may I" and "I'm sorry". We spend a lot of time in our household coaching, reminding and encouraging our children to ask for things properly without being told in their early years.
Some argue that we might be shortchanging our children if we do not harness their potential from the earliest possible and groom their gifts in the preschool years. We can and should help them be ahead even before the starting line. If not we fail as parents. But what if we are not in the race? What if we are in a one of those "walkathon" that all that matters is we finish? And we finish without cheating, being alive and not having a sour attitude?
Isn't the focus of Prov 22:6 (Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.) the part about when he is old? What is the way we do not want them to be departed from when they are old? What is essential and what is negotiable? What can happen later and what should happen now?
Early Childhood Education is getting more hype than it should. Enjoy our little ones. They don't stay little long. They are like sponges that soak in the world with their earnest drive to learn; they will learn anyway.