Pulling out my ex early childhood development and education hat here, I remember being taught that the early years were some of the most important years of a child’s life. Not only that, but those years were also looked at as a time to nurture and foster a love for learning.
So the question becomes (especially among the homeschooling community) – how important is [structured] learning in the early years? Keep reading to find out both my professional and personal take on this probing question.
The Natural Development of Children
Whether you’re a parent or not, you can look at the lives of your children, other children, or even your own and see that there is a natural pattern to child development. From the womb to adulthood, there are many phases that we go through. During the early years, children experience amazing growth in such a short spurt of time.
From birth to approximately three-years-old children learn to roll over, crawl, walk, talk, use the bathroom independently, become aware of their emotions, and so much more. While a lot of this is purposefully taught, some (if not most) can be contributed to learned behavior.
It’s no wonder that when a person pursues any form of higher education in the field of early childhood development (and education) that they are taught to focus on one of the most important aspects…
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Nurturing the Natural Development of Children
This is where it can get a bit tricky. For the homeschooling mom of infants, toddlers, and/or preschoolers, most of the time they are worried about how to begin some form of “education” for their child.
For the infant, toddler, and/or preschool teacher in a childcare setting, they are taught to provide an “at-home”-like approach coupled with good nutrition and health, consistent loving care with the added encouragement to learn.
In other words, teachers are taught to be the nurturer and caregiver of the child, making them feel at home and comfortable. However, for the homeschooling mom, this doesn’t always seem like the only thing to do so they search for ways to incorporate some form of structured (even standardized) learning.
Not saying that a structured learning environment is not necessary for the young child, but when it comes to nurturing, we are simply dealing with nourishing our children’s live physically, mentally, and emotionally. Let me also interject here that I’m totally guilty of ignoring the simplicity of this fact, especially coming from a preschool teacher background.
Fostering the Natural Development of Children
This may sound a lot like nurturing, but there is a difference. Fostering deals more with the actual raising or “bringing up” of a child. With that in mind, we can explore different ways this can happen for children – hence, answering the question “how important is structured learning in the early years”.
Not to get all flashback-to-the-college-days, but we can thank early childhood pioneers like Piaget, Montessori, Erickson, and Dewey who studied children and came up with many methods that are still used today – especially in homeschooling.
In a nutshell, structured learning may be the ultimate goal, but for a certain age range (for example, 7+ years of age). For babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and dare I say kindergartners, the following suggestions are ways to help naturally foster their growth and development without the focus of learning being necessarily structured:
- Play. You’ve probably heard the term, “Let them play!” Well, it’s true. Children learn so much through playing. They are able to tap into their own curiosities, dabble with trial and error, and even figure out more about themselves.
- Child-led. This allows the child to naturally learn as they develop. In most cases, children will communicate their interests by asking questions or naturally gravitating toward something specific.
- Child-guided. This approach adds a dose of structure but not to the point where the child is forced to learn something (or else!). In most childcare environments, this approach is used to help the child explore, and the teacher to learn more about the developmental state of children.
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Schedule vs. Structure
Before heading out I wanted to provide you with an alternative to the word structure when thinking of how to merge into educating young children. Instead of being focused of what to teach young children, allow their curiosities to flow. Yes, it’s fine to teach them letters, numbers, colors, shapes, and cute little nursery rhymes… but what they need most is nurturing.
After I got the classroom out of my system, I realized that having a schedule was more beneficial for my younger (and older) children versus stressing over what I was going to teach them. Through trial and error, I have found what works for us and what doesn’t. Having reading times, coloring (art) times, and family cooking/cleaning times spark my children’s interest for learning the best.
Yes, there will come a time for my littles to sit down and learn educational concepts, but for now… they are enjoying life as the spontaneous little sponges that they are!
CHIME IN: What are your thoughts about structured learning in the early years? Share in the comments below!