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Challenge: Expert Advice

Screens and worksheets aren't the solution to learning for young children

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Since the pandemic closed schools and parents suddenly became teachers, I’ve been hearing from a lot of parents who are – it’s no exaggeration to say – freaking out. They’re worried about how much “learning” is being lost. And they’re surprised when I reassure them that learning in school is not the end-all-and-be-all – especially for young children, who until recently in history, were never part of the schooling scene anyway and managed to do just fine. I, for example, never attended preschool or kindergarten because early childhood education wasn’t a “thing” when I was young. Nor was it free, and my family had no money to spare for something considered nonessential. And I’ve done okay!

Don’t get me wrong; I think a developmentally appropriate preschool or early learning center has wonderful advantages for the little ones. (And I think the teachers and caregivers in these places are stars.) But a developmentally appropriate preschool is one in which play is the primary vehicle through which children learn. In which active learning is the norm.

That means that the children

  • sort and stack blocks and other manipulatives to learn such quantitative concepts as high, low, wide, and narrow, as well as physics principles (math and science);
  • sing and dance and act out stories to promote emergent literacy;
  • grow plants from seeds, explore the outdoor environment, and investigate at sand and water tables to gain additional scientific knowledge;
  • try on various roles through dramatic play (social studies); and
  • explore, discover, and solve problems through simple, everyday play – which is how almost all our planet’s creatures were meant to learn!

None of these lessons involve digital devices or worksheets, which many parents have told me they’re turning to. I understand you’ve been led to believe screens are more educational than play, and that worksheets show “evidence” of what your child is learning. But screens and worksheets aren’t the solution for young children – specifically because they don’t involve play, or active learning.

All of the lessons cited above can be learned easily at home! There may not be a water table available, but surely there’s water and a bucket. And if there’s a paintbrush, too, you can send your children outdoors to “paint” the side of the house or building and see absorption and evaporation in action.

There may not be a parachute available, but surely there’s a spare sheet or large towel and some cotton balls you and your children can use to see the principle of gravity in action.

Maybe there aren’t even blocks or manipulatives available – such things, unfortunately, being considered too old-fashioned these days. But there must be coins, or something similar, that children can stack and sort. And while they’re doing that, in addition to exploring math and science concepts, they’ll be honing those all-important fine motor skills.

Although you may not be able to interact with people outside the family right now, you can – and should – get outdoors, where I promise you nature has more to offer than any formal schooling ever could. Outdoors, there are myriad experiences for the senses, regardless of where a child lives. A listening walk, during which children identify either manmade or natural sounds, qualifies as a lesson in emergent literacy because active listening is a component of language arts. An air walk, during which children witness all the ways in which air has an impact, is a science lesson.

None of these lessons has less validity because it isn’t being offered in a school building. Nor do these lessons fade away! Once a child has acted out the words in a book you’re reading to her, she not only comprehends their meanings; also, she retains their meanings.

Counting the number of steps it takes to get from one side of the room or yard to the other, or setting the table, grants him a better understanding of one-to-one correspondence than he could garner from any app or worksheet. The research is clear: The more senses children use in the learning process, the more information they retain.

I suspect that when the experts bemoan the months of learning being lost, they’re talking about a failure to remember that which the children were forced to memorize – to swallow and regurgitate. That’s not authentic learning. Authentic learning may not be quantifiable, but it is the kind of learning that lasts. The kind that is meaningful and will serve your children throughout a lifetime.

Young children are born with a love of learning. They don’t need to be encouraged to learn; it’s simply what they do – as they play, explore, and discover. As my colleague Tom Hobson has written, there are plenty of things to worry about right now but your young child’s schooling isn’t one of them.

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