William J. Bennett, book excerpt
Here are some critical points about how little children learn, as well as some reminders about what they need—and don’t need—to be ready for school.
You are always teaching by example—not simply with your words, but also by your most ordinary actions. Imitation is perhaps the most important way a young child learns. Teaching by example is probably the most important kind of teaching you do.
Sometimes you will fall short, of course. When you do, acknowledge it to your child. Explain that “Daddy said something he shouldn’t,” or “I lost my temper, and that is bad.” Help your child learn from your mistakes by being honest about them.
Establish good habits and firm rules now, in the pre-kindergarten years. Above all, set limits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV at all under the age of two. So do we. An hour a day is more than enough for older preschoolers. Television should not become a constant baby-sitter. Remember, these early years are critical. Do not let the TV set gobble them up.
Routine is important for little children in part because it provides the repetition necessary for learning. It is crucial in developing good habits. A familiar rhythm in daily life gives children a sense of security in a world they see as strange and unpredictable. Without that sense of security, a child may have a hard time learning. ‘When your child wants to play Hide and Seek one more time, or begs to go down to the pond to see the minnows for the third day in a row, remember that small children need to do things over and over again to learn and to feel confident in their learning.
Children’s first “how” and “why” questions generally appear around age three. They indicate that he has an emerging interest in reasoning. He wants to understand the way things work. If you take the time to answer his questions, his sense of curiosity and desire to explore will be heightened. If you ignore them, or act bothered by all those inquiries, you may make him feel guilty about asking and thereby squelch his urge to learn. (Naturally, parents cannot answer every question kids ask. Boundaries must be set. Sometimes kids need to be told, “Mommy is busy right now—let’s save that question until later.”)
Teaching very young children therefore calls for a great deal of patience and understanding. Sometimes it requires firmly telling a child “No” and realizing that there is no point in trying to reason with him about it, because he cannot understand your logical explanations!
Preschoolers rely much more heavily on direct experience to gather knowledge. They learn through their bodies—by seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling things that are physically present.
One of your jobs is to show your child the right way to do things. It is also important, however, to give him chances to try on his own, even when you know he’s not going about something the correct way (unless, of course, what he’s doing is unsafe or harmful). As he grows older, urge him to keep trying when things don’t go right the first or second or even third time—because perseverance is the key to a great deal of living and learning.
Play encourages exploration. It exercises growing bodies and imaginations. It offers chances to interact with parents and other children, and gives practice using words. Play makes learning fun, and that’s important. When a child gets to school, studying should become a more formal and serious endeavor. In the preschool years, a great deal of learning comes through just having a good time.
Don’t be too pushy. Some moms and dads become obsessed with the idea of making sure their preschool kids “get ahead.” They buy picture book after picture book. They pull their hair when they hear that little Jane down the street is already reading Green Eggs and Ham by herself, and sit down to the next story time with drill sergeant determination. They purchase lots of expensive “educational” toys, shuffle their kids from activity to activity to make sure they’re always “learning” something, and pay big bucks to enroll their three-year-olds in “schools” where they can hone that academic edge.
If you recognize these signs in yourself, lighten up. You could be on the verge of doing more harm than good. Very young children generally do not thrive under that kind of pressure. We do not say it is wrong to set high expectations for your child. Little children should be engaged, stimulated, and encouraged—but not rushed. Don’t try to hurry your preschooler to become a scholar before he’s had a chance to be a little kid. After all, innocence and youthfulness are treasures that last only so long, and then they’re gone.
Reference - The Educated Child: A Parents Guide from Preschool through Eighth Grade. Free Press (1999)