September-October 2007 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Let's Not Institutionalize 3, 4, and 5 Year Olds
Pressure is increasing from many quarters to make preschool more widely available, perhaps even mandatory. Mandatory preschool or kindergarten would increase the number of years we homeschoolers are accountable to the state, including the possibility of state-mandated testing, review and approval of curriculum, and preschool screening. In addition, as homeschoolers, we have important information not readily available from other sources to contribute to the debate on preschool. We have concrete, personal understanding of problems with conventional schools and direct experience with the ways children can learn outside of schools. We have a lot to say and we should say it, for the benefit of children, families, and our society.
This column discusses ways in which young children learn, how well they learn at home, downsides to preschool, and suggestions for what we can do.
Why do children learn so well at home?
Being at home or with their family in the community allows children to be grounded and feel secure. This frees them to focus on interacting with the world and learning about it. It also allows them to develop a healthy independence that is measured by their ability to function effectively in the world, not by their physical distance from their parents. (Actually, it's more realistic to think in terms of interdependence, since that's what life requires.)
Young children learning at home strengthen their families. In general, the more time families spend together and the more experiences they share, the stronger the bonds between parents and children and among siblings. Observers realize that learning is natural, parents are essential to the process, and experts are not needed.
Children discover things themselves. They learn in ways that work best for them, including looking, listening, and, whenever possible, touching and doing. They naturally use their individual strengths, working at a pace that suits them. They are motivated by curiosity, especially when they can pursue what interests them. Parents don't have to motivate them; in the natural setting of the family, they exercise and maintain their curiosity. They learn because the world is there and they want to increase their understanding and mastery. Knowledge is more likely to be remembered when it makes sense and doesn't need to be memorized.
Children who learn by doing and make discoveries themselves are on a path of lifelong learning. They take responsibility for their own learning instead of waiting till someone tells them what to do and what they should be learning. They gain experience in how to learn, make choices, and ask questions, often without realizing that they are doing something special and important. They just learn, in much the same way as they breathe and do other natural activities.
Real life, as distinct from conventional school life, offers interactions with people of all ages. Younger people help children learn to care for others and give them a sense of how they are growing and what they can do. Older people offer guidance, keep kids safe, and provide good role models.
Free, creative, wholesome play contributes enormously to children's growth and development. It's hard to believe that something as simple, basic, and easy as free play, something that may seem frivolous, is so essential to development. Engaging in various activities develops both large and small motor skills. Explorations that are part of play promote learning. Children develop problem solving skills. Play enhances emotional well-being by giving children a chance to be in control and to express and deal with their fears of monsters, storms, or whatever. Social skills are developed as children interact with each other, practice taking on various roles, and act out what they have seen others do.
Play generally works best when older people, ideally parents, are available if needed. Often there is less competition if children are different ages. Equipment and materials need not be elaborate. Simple things encourage imagination, and real objects used by grown ups are often favorites. It helps if time for play is flexible, allowing children to do this important work uninterrupted until they need a break.
Outside conventional classrooms, children learn from the whole world and are not limited to a classroom plus a few field trips. The world offers an overwhelming number of learning opportunities that don't have to be unusual or expensive to work extremely well. Children learn from cooking, interacting with pets, exploring mud in the back yard, going to the grocery store or library or dentist, watching a plumber, caring for sick or elderly friends and relatives, vacationing with the family, observing parents and others exercise civic responsibilities and make important moral and ethical decisions, etc.
Homes can be set up so they support children's basic health. Among the obvious keys are adequate rest (much easier to accomplish when schedules are flexible and children can sleep when they are tired), nutritious meals and snacks, and wholesome exercise, allowing children to move freely at will and get fresh air. Such health promoters are easier to achieve at home than in a classroom.
But don't children from "underprivileged" homes need preschool?
Poverty, racism, and other social ills are unfair, tragic, and have life-long effects. Our society has a moral and a practical obligation to overcome them. We can learn from countries that have done a better job. For now, except in extreme cases, removing young children from their homes and institutionalizing them, even for a few hours a day, is not a good solution to such problems because it stresses children, weakens families, and creates other problems. It is much better to strengthen families through public policy initiatives such as providing financial support so mothers can be home with young children. We could change tax policies so families with young children had more disposable income, reducing the need for parents to work outside the home.
Does preschool harm children?
Many people assume that because learning is important, schools are necessary. As homeschoolers, we can make an important contribution here by showing people that schools are not necessary for learning to take place and in fact often present obstacles and interfere with children's natural learning. Listed below are responses to people who argue that children would surely benefit from the opportunities preschool offers, would not be harmed by it, and could continue learning in their homes and communities and enjoy the advantages described above during the times they aren't in school.
• Even a short amount of time in preschool can disrupt good things happening at home, many of which require a relaxed, flexible schedule and approach to life without needing to meet other people's timetables and, more seriously, their expectations. In addition, preschool weakens families by separating parents and children, reducing time together and shared experiences, and draining family time and energy in preparing children for school and dealing with the stress and conflicts created by the school environment and its values and demands.
• Preschool undermines children's confidence in their ability to figure out what they need to know and learn it. Children are quick to sense that teachers think they need to tell children what to do and how to do it. It also undermines parents' confidence in their children's ability to learn and their ability to help them. Schools send a strong message: "You are incapable of learning what you need to know from your family and the world around you. You need to go to a special place and be taught by experts."
• Since 3, 4, and 5 year olds are not mature enough to function well in large groups of their peers and without having their parents nearby, negative social experiences and uncooperative, aggressive behavior (including bullying, mean spiritedness, and name calling) are essentially inevitable.
• Both formal and informal testing (observing children and comparing them to each other) are an inevitable part of the school experience in our culture today. Tests interrupt learning and undermine learners' confidence. Because tests are based on the experiences and values of the test makers, they are biased against those with different experiences and values. Test scores do not accurately represent children's learning. They sometimes identify so-called problems that are simply normal differences in developmental timetables and would disappear over time. They can lead to inaccurate labels that become self-fulfilling prophesies and limit and handicap children throughout their lives. Even children who are not formally labeled are assigned to groups based on academic ability. Parents who have the necessary power (which often means rich parents) frequently intercede if they realize that their young children are going to be put into a group with lower academic skills and labeled accordingly, showing that this is recognized as something to be avoided.
• Children who do not meet the schools' expectations and needs are frequently put on drugs that can have serious side effects.
• In addition, there is a subtle shift in parents' and kids' understanding of who is responsible for learning and how it happens. Newborns and young children learn complex ideas from life. Without expensive equipment, visits to the gym, or the guidance of a personal trainer, they use simple exercises to develop physical strength and coordination and begin walking. At the same time, without being taught or having words broken down into isolated pieces, they learn how to use arbitrary collections of sounds to communicate a physical reality or an abstract idea; in other words, they learn to talk. They develop a sense of time, remembering the past and anticipating the future while being in the present. They learn to isolate and identify abstract qualities of objects, such as size and color. And much more. If you are lucky enough to know a toddler right now, or have clear memories of toddlers you have known in the past, think about all the work they do.
This marvelous process is interrupted when someone tries to teach young children. At the very least, this slows down the learning process. Instead of simply learning, children first have to figure out what they are supposed to learn, and then they have to learn it. More seriously, the teacher's lens may distort reality and mislead children. To be sure, some things are too risky to learn from experience and must be taught; you can't play in the street, for example. And it isn't necessary to reinvent every wheel. But as a general rule, the more people discover for themselves, the more immediate, vivid, meaningful, useful, integrated, and memorable their knowledge is.
• Attending school is even more disruptive to this learning process than informal teaching done by parents, siblings, and others. Many people assume that schools have a corner on the market when it comes to real learning that matters. Of course, children who attend conventional schools continue to learn in the real world, sometimes following the same process they followed when learning to walk, talk, think in abstract terms, etc. But the knowledge that gets the prestige, that is considered real and important and serious, is the stuff they learn at school. The really important stuff (how to get along with a wide variety of people, solve problems, make good decisions, exercise leadership skills, deal with ambiguity and change, cook, do important work, etc.) takes second place to multiplication tables and lists of state capitals which can easily be learned in just a few hours.
What We Can Do
• We can become more aware of how and where children learn best.
• We can know about the down-sides of institutionalizing children early.
• We can create a journal of the wonderful things our children or grandchildren are doing and learning, thereby becoming our own anthropologists and advocates.
• Without bragging, we can let others know how well our homeschooled children are doing and that we think this is due in large part to the fact that they can explore the world freely, in their own way and at their own pace, with the security that home and family provide.
• When we have doubts, perhaps because of comments in the media or from relatives or neighbors or some "expert" on a talk show, a letter from the school district telling us to bring our children in for screening, or pressures to work outside the home, we can ask ourselves questions such as: What would my children learn in a conventional school that they need to know and wouldn't learn naturally? Do I want my children confined socially to a few overworked adults and a lot of very young children? Is this really best for my children or is it more about social pressure and perhaps my own misgivings about what my children might be missing? Can I be sure that my children would not become less cooperative and more aggressive and angry, as have many children when put into institutionalized settings at early ages?
As homeschoolers, we have a different and important understanding of both amazing benefits and rewards of learning at home and in our communities and the risks inherent in attending a conventional school, especially at a very young age. The more the pressure for universal preschool and mandatory early childhood education increases, the more our experience and perspective are needed.
© 2007, Larry and Susan Kaseman