This article is currently running in the 2014 Annual Family Resource Guide Edition of Child Guide Magazine. Check out the entire issue online at: http://www.childguidemagazine.com/
“Stop running,” says the mother to the 4 year old. “Sit still,” the embarrassed father whispers sternly to his toddler at story hour. “If you don’t know these sight words by Friday, your teacher will be upset,” warns the anxious parent of the new Kindergartener. We’ve all heard these threats. In all honesty, most of us have made them, or something quite close to them. But if we could take a moment to pause and consider if the demands we place on our children are developmentally appropriate would we continue to make them?
As a pediatric Physical Therapist, I help families determine the functional and developmental skills that their child has challenges with at their current age/stage. Then I provide them with play-based strategies to help them achieve the goals we’ve set together for their child. Parents help their children meet these goals through practice during play. This method of helping children learn makes perfect sense, yet it is barely used in the context of teaching children at any age or with varied abilities.
Why do we, as parents and educators, ignore that small voice inside that instinctually KNOWS what our child should learn or how they should behave at their given age in favor of unrealistic goals?
It turns out, it’s not entirely our fault. Society has a lot to do with the faulty message that parents are receiving. Although the reasons why the message to parents are numerous and complex, there seems to be 3 strong motivators. First, not surprisingly, is financial. Toy and “educational” product manufacturers are aware of the pressure parents feel to have their children keep up with the swift race that childhood has unfortunately become and can capitalize by offering products that meet that emotional need, despite the fact that many of these products are not developmentally appropriate. A prime example of this are the “Baby Reading” Programs that teach young children to identify the shapes of words and match them to the actual word through repetition without actual literary learning.
Second, is a trickle down effect from the education system. As college entrance levels become competitive and our nation falls behind in international educational rakings, panic rises, and pressure increases to “get ahead.” Yet, once again, instead of relying on what solid research says about how young children learn best (through hands on play and in context through multisensory experiences – especially in the first 5-6 years of life), we turn away from methods other countries are using and turn to drill work and standardized tests for younger and younger children. I love the saying that “Kindergartners should be blowing bubbles not filling them in.” And at the end of the day, knowing that this educational standard is looming in the years ahead, parents of preschoolers and even babies automatically turn to activities that will “prepare” their child for school without regard to developmental need. A recent poll showed that 65% of parents feel that “flashcards are very helpful in helping 2 year olds develop intellectual intelligence.” Unfortunately 65% of those parents are wrong. Yes, a flashcard can help your child learn to memorize that the letter printed on it is a “B,” but running around a room and sounding out starting letters of various toys and throwing those that start with the letter “B” into the bucket with the “B” on it is an example of REAL learning, in the context of play.
Third is the current belief, held by many adults, that the end product of a child that is gifted in many ways – academically, athletically, artistically, musically etc. is more important than the actual process of childhood. Think about it. Are you gifted both creatively AND analytically? Me neither. Expecting your child to be sets an unrealistic standard. Filling the schedules, of particularly young children, with lessons, and structured experiences to try and meet that unrealistic standard denies them what is most important for their learning – unstructured playtime. The consequences are tragic. Mental health statistics in our young children, particularly tweens, are on the rise, not fully, but in part to a lack of opportunity to “blow off steam” through unstructured free time. Eating on the go to rush from lesson to game to tutoring and decreased physical education and recess time in our schools have led to the staggering statistic that 1 in 3 American children are obese.
We need to wake up. By understanding how children learn best at each stage and what is developmentally and neurologically typical, we can foster quality learning for healthy children. I know it sounds overwhelming. Here’s some easy ways to start:
· Understand Development. Speak to pediatricians, early childhood specialists and educators who have specialized training in what ages children’s bodies are made to learn certain skills. Did you know that the average brain is not ready to accept literacy in the form of actual reading until 6 years of age? This is why it’s not taught in Germany until 1st grade. Why do pre-K parents feel like a failure if their child can’t read BEFORE they go to Kindergarten? Tune out what the media, the mainstream retailers, and what the “academic preschool” is telling you. Listen to your inner voice and those who have done solid research on child development. Einstein Never Used Flashcards by Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, Play by Murphy, and Brain Gym by Dennison are great places to start if you are interested in the stages and ways children learn specific skills.
· Understand What Actually Will Make Your Child Smarter. Interestingly, straight IQ is not a measure of future success. Psychologists now talk about “multiple intelligences” as the best measure of true intelligence, with consideration to things like impact emotional intelligence, such as empathy, self-discipline, and interpersonal skills, in addition to analytic abilities. What impacts these? One of the highest indicators is language – especially vocabulary. No matter the age of your child, read to them. Visit the library. Let them read and write to you when they are able. Tell stories and sing to each other. Have dinner conversations. Also, the environment your child is in matters and can affect IQ as much as 15-20 points. Your encouragement, involvement, and affection matter.
· Keep Expectations Real. Once you know what to expect from your child at their current age (or more importantly stage of development if they tend to show delays or have unique patterns in development) and focus on what they are able to do and enjoy doing. Keeping appropriate expectations will allow your child (and yourself) to be less stressed and more engaged with what they are motivated to learn about. Continuing to challenge your child to learn just outside of their comfort zone will keep them engaged and eager to learn. It is equally important to embrace their given abilities. Only 1.5 out of 10 people will have an IQ over 117. In fact the large majority of people, 86%, will score between 84-116 on an IQ test. Why is “normal” no longer celebrated or embraced but seen as a weakness?
· Know Your Child And Be An Advocate. This might be the most challenging but the most important recommendation! We all learn differently. Is your child a visual or auditory learner? Does he or she work best independently or in groups? Is he/she a quick worker or need more time? Keep learning styles, preferences, and abilities in mind when teaching your child and choose activities and preschools that line up with what you believe is best for your child. Communicate these observations to teachers and coaches. Yes, if you chose formal education or community sports, your child will have to play by the rules set for them, but a great educator and coach will help them do that best by knowing how they learn best.
· Don’t Stop Playing. Ever. Fred Rogers once said, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” If we take the opportunity to play away, we take away a child’s ability to practice all that they are learning. In today’s world, this might mean saying “No” to an activity or actually looking at your calendar and penciling in down time. Embrace it and swim up that stream. Your children will be happier and healthier because of it. You are their best example, so remember to allow yourself to play and have downtime as well!
It’s not odd to wonder, “How did we even get to this place?” Before the 19th century, childhood wasn’t formally recognized. Children were viewed as miniature adults, preparing themselves for their eventual adult roles. Photographs and artwork of that period even depict them as small adults. At the end of the 19th century child psychology was born, children were studied, and experts in the field emerged. These experts, such as Dr. Spock, became influential as more mothers worked outside the home and wanted to make sure that in the time they had with their children, they were doing all they could for them. Today, we dress children as adults. We expect them to sit, be still, stay quiet, read, write, and score well on standardized tests before they are developmentally ready to do so, and we fault them (and ourselves) when they can’t. They are stimulated incorrectly mentally and stifled physically. We have turned them into miniature adults again, abandoning much of what we have learned about our children through the years. Are we ready as adults to give childhood back to our children?If we have the courage to do so, I think we’ll find we will have happier, healthier, smarter, and more engaged children. And nothing makes a parent happier – than a happy child.
Nicole M. Sergent, MPT is a Pediatric Physical Therapist. Because she believes in empowering parents to understand and embrace their child’s unique development and in jumping in and engaging with them through purposeful play, she co-authored a unique tool for families of young children called 1-2-3 Just Play With Me. It is her effort to help give childhood back to children by helping parents understand development and pairing it with play. Find out more at: www.milestonesandmiracles.com