Thursday, 26 April 2012

Leave them alone

Why can't we leave our kids alone? To be kids. To play and enjoy their early years.

I admit I used to be one of those parents who got sucked into all the 'we'll have your child reading and writing long before they go to school'.

Reading programs, different phonics approaches, Japanese or some other, structured language and literacy time all sounded like the right thing to do. Don't we all want our children to be prepared, to be reading and writing before anyone else, to be ahead? To be CLEVER?????

Should our eyes light up (like mine did) when we discover how much they could cram in just a few hours? Because doing a zillion things somehow justifies the fees, doesn't it?... Heaven forbid they should just play.

Except something hasn't been sitting well with me. On the one hand, how can I argue with education systems that are adopted everywhere? I don't really know about the research behind literacy and numeracy programs, or how children learn better through phonics-based reading programs. I'm not an early childhood teacher. I wish I was one sometimes, but I'm not.

On the other hand, what I am is a parent. A parent of a four-year-old who is teaching me what is best for him.

It occurred to me very recently that a lot of these programs that centres and preschools shout about are feeding a fear in us. The fear that our child won't be prepared for school. The fear that they might not do very well.

If, for one second, we stop comparing... If we imagine it's just our own children. It's just them running through the park, along the beach, playing. Just them. No one else. Doesn't it just come down to one thing  then? For them to be happy?

Ignore the cliché but it was a like breath of fresh air for me. Discovering that if we let them play, they'll learn all this stuff anyway, in their own time, when they're ready, not because someone said it's Letterland hour.

The time will come for structured learning. Oh yes, it will come, and this, their beautiful childhood, will be gone.

I grew up in a culture that looks at childhood as something you have to try and get through before the meaty part really begins. That it's all preparation for the years to follow.

Children aren't trainees. We shouldn't be preparing them. It's a glorious stage in its own right.

Everyone talks about wanting their children to have the best education, but education is more than academics.

Of course, literacy and numeracy are crucial, but I believe in a more natural rounded approach. Reading books from an early age and having an enjoyable story time every day where you talk about the author and illustrator and discuss the story will bring about literacy, for example.

In any case, education is so much more than subjects taught at school.

Mine was an extreme education. It was good in so many ways, but damaging in lots of others. What I remember from school was that there wasn't any opportunity to play and explore.

Whilst I'm not talking about proper school just yet, I feel it's important to set the tone now. Play, music, teaching them about food, where it comes from in the garden teaches them more than we think, it's fun and what's more it's relevant. Japanese isn't.

Nor is French, even though I speak it  and would love for my children to speak more than one language. There's only so much time in the day, and I do enough beating myself up on what I don't do. It's just not that meaningful right now.

I'm not trying to shape someone who's going to be successful in their career; I'm trying to shape a human being who will be happy.

I'm already very nervy about school, and what they expect of little ones... Homeschooling would be fantastic in lots of ways, except it's not going to happen chez nous – I haven't been blessed with endless patience and boundless energy. Sadly.

Luckily, we found an early learning centre after I'd given up all hope. Now, I just hope we find the right school.


I'll sign off with a picture I took last week at a farm nearby. Just because.

* I know lots of people won't agree with the above. But I'm speaking from the heart as a parent of a sensitive soul. There's every chance I haven't got my point across well (I always take far too long to get to the point!), so I can already hear arguments for stretching a child at an early age and exposing them to everything under the sun. I'm not against stretching or stimulating a child - of course I'm not - so long as they're free to play, learn and explore exactly what interests them. It's wonderful we live in an age now that recognises the importance of open-ended, play-based learning. We like the sound of it, and it sounds so idyllic, but in practice many of us are still worry about them just playing. 

** God, I'm so glad to get this finally out of my head. I've been thinking about this for months. 


  1. Great post Vanessa and so very true as you say that our little ones play and explore and create and are happy rather than being made into 'mini schoolchildren' at such an early age. As a teacher, my view is that kindy and pre-school should be 'play based'. Learning through play at this age is important and while being able to count, know their letters etc. is all important before they begin kindy, anything like reading programs that as you say make amazing claims are definitely unnecessary at this age. Literacy and numeracy are definitely important but not the only important parts of kindy.

  2. When we were making the very big decision about whether to send Lola to school this year or next (at 4 and a half years or 5 and a half), I heard a lot of opinions, but the one that rang truest for me was, "Why not let her just play for another year? She has the rest of her life for 'learning'."

    1. So true. We are keeping Luca back too. Someone said to me that it's so much better for a child to be the oldest in a class rather than the youngest, especially when it comes to peer pressure etc. This is what made up my mind. Plus, this person's husband who was the youngest in his class at school never made it in the swimming comps even though he had real talent, because he was the last to develop as a teenager and was too self-conscious. Something else to consider with boys...

  3. They are businesses who are there to make money. That's all I know.

    Reading early or writing early doesn't make someone clever. x

  4. My 4 year-old is the youngest of 5 so you'd think I'd have this sussed by now but I'm still undecided about it! He's the only one of mine who is desperate to read so that he can play Scrabble, counts, writes etc but being only just 4 will be very young compared to the 6 year old girls that will be joining him to start school in January. Thankfully it's a tiny school and the principal is very influenced by the Steiner system. I'm not one for hot-housing and would rather they learnt to climb trees at this age!
    Thanks for popping by, nice to 'meet' you!
    Have a lovely weekend,
    Sandra x

  5. Hey V! I think Montessori schools have a similar ethos...maybe check them out. I so miss our chats - you're never on skype when I am so when I remember to read your blog it's a lovely catch up. I love the happiness saying.... will def try to remember that one.
    Mum gave me a helpful saying last week when I was stressed at work: When in charge...ponder. When in trouble...delegate. When in doubt...mumble! Made me smile if nothing else. Sending you a big hug. xxxx

  6. Hi Vanessa, I'm very impressed with your blog. You have no idea how it makes my heart sing to hear from passionate parents who really get what early childhood education is all about. You are a blessing.

    Love Sarah ELC


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