What is “early learning”?
I’m not sure where the nickname came from, but it stuck. More than likely, it was a spinoff of the “early reading” movement where most of us started out – that is, teaching our kids to read well before school age, or, “early readers”.
But, we we call ourselves “early learning parents”, and often refer to our kids as “early learners”.
While it is a term sometimes used to refer to any learning that happens in the “early years” (usually age 0-5 years or so), this is what we mean by it:
Age Appropriateness Re-evaluated
Early learning proponents believe that there is not developmentally inappropriate content, but rather developmentally inappropriate teaching methods.
For example, common “wisdom” says that phonics is much too abstract for a 1-year-old. Multiplication is much too complicated for a 2-year-old. Algebra is much too difficult for a 5-year-old. But early learning proponents believe it is more about the teaching method than the content.
Example: letter sounds
Usual teaching method (kindergarten or first grade):
Listening to a teacher talk and explain
Filling out worksheets, tests, practice problems; lots of writing and “busywork” involved
Drilling the concepts over and over until child can prove mastery
Lots of sitting still, quiet listening, focusing
Exposure to same content in a way that is appropriate for a 1-year-old:
Showing a baby 1-5 foam letters at each diaper change
Being playful, excited, and cheerful as you say the letter sounds
Being very brief – only spending 5-10 seconds on it
Do you see the difference? The second example is how I taught my baby his letter sounds, and he learned them quickly and easily before a year and a half old.
Just because it is “usually” taught at age 4 or 5 or 6, doesn’t mean it was “too difficult” for him. He learned letter sounds with the same ease that he learned, “The cow says ‘moo'” or, “This is a ball.”
“Teaching” Little Ones
Early learning proponents believe that you can teach a very tiny child virtually anything by using methods that are appropriate for very young children.
What are those methods?
1. Exposure versus teaching
Teaching usually involves giving the student information, drilling the information, then testing to make sure they understand.
Exposing a child to information involves stress-free, pressure-free, demand-free knowledge giving, often times incorporated into daily routines and everyday conversations.
2. Being joyful, playful, and enthusiastic
Learning is viewed as an exciting game, not a chore.
3. Being very, very brief
Only spending a few seconds at a time showing the information.
4. Being clear and straightforward
Giving your child facts (not abstractions) that are clearly presented, easy to see (large print and pictures), and extremely straightforward. Also, avoiding over-explaining things by being as precise as possible.
Tiny Kids are Capable and Intelligent
Ok, so maybe if you expose your child to concepts in a playful, laid-back way, it’s not going to damage them. But are they really going to be able to understand much?
Society has stereotyped little kids as these dumb, incompetent little creatures that don’t know anything about anything.
But neuroscience has taught us that tiny children are extremely observant, precocious, and adaptable. They are keen problem solvers and rabid language learners. They come into the world with an incredible amount of built-in understanding of the way things work, and are absorbing new information about the physical world, the social world, and the language world at a truly mind-boggling rate.
Consider also a tiny child’s almost miraculous ability to learn a language (or multiple languages!). They effortlessly learn all the vocabulary, grammar, inflection, tone, and native pronunciation of a language without a single lesson.
For an adult to learn a language as well as the average 4-year-old, they require hundreds of hours of lessons, study, and practice. Yet toddlers do it without ever being taught.
This tells us that very young children are:
Absorbing information from their environment at an amazing rate
“Geniuses” at figuring out rules (in the case of language, grammar rules)
Intuitive, capable, and intelligent
Tiny Children are Interested in Learning
Adults have categorized anything that is “academic” as “boring” and “difficult”. But babies aren’t born with this bias, and toddlers and preschoolers almost never have it.
They find learning country flags just as interesting as learning zoo animals.
They find singing about presidents just as exciting as singing about “Little Bo Peep”.
They find playing with math concepts just as fun as playing with jigsaw puzzles.
They find learning letter sounds just as intriguing as learning farm animal sounds.
They find reading history stories just as enjoyable as reading fairy tales.
And as many early learning parents have found, they often enjoy the “academic” play more than they do the “typical kid stuff”.
Creating a Development-Enhancing Environment
Besides giving your child information, many early learning parents also seek to create a developmentally-enhancing environment that helps their child naturally develop, learn, and build the foundation for other skills.
This can be things like building play equipment that helps your child develop the hand, wrist, and upper body strength necessary for writing. It can also mean things like creating a great home library collection where your child has access to books, or making sure that your home is full of language-building conversations.
It can also mean things like providing lots of colorful, high-contrast pictures for your newborn to look at to help them grow their vision so that they can see earlier and be able to sooner enjoy books, picture cards, and word cards.
So in summary, early learning means:
- Exposing your child to lots of interesting subjects in a gentle, playful way
- Believing that your child can learn and wants to learn
- Creating an environment that naturally helps your child learn, develop, and build foundational skills
It may not be for everyone, but many parents (and children) have found a great deal of joy, pleasure, and adventure in learning and discovering many beautiful, interesting, and worthwhile things together.