By Heather Pleier of Wonderschooling
There is not one right way to parent or teach the early years — in fact, there are a bunch of amazing methods and styles that work well — and I want you to know you’re probably already doing the right things with your preschooler.
You’re paying attention to her, encouraging her development, cheering him on, thinking carefully about the kinds of activities or influences you want in his life.
You’re doing a great job. And if you’re like me, you probably feel pressure from everyone and their neighbor about what your children should be doing on what timescale. Can’t they write their name? Don’t know their numbers to twenty? Have trouble completing a puzzle on their own? Or maybe your kid is ahead, and people are warning you he’s going to be bored and cause problems.
Childhood isn’t a race. It’s about meeting our kids where they are, no matter where that is, and exploring and growing together.
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Kids develop at their own pace. I have a kid who walked at ten months and one who walked at 21 months. Guess who’s more coordinated? Yeah. The one who didn’t walk until 21 months. So. Take a deep breath. We have an opportunity to push back against the pressure and performance mentality and give our kids the gift of learning at their own pace, in their own way. They’ll get there, especially when we give them a healthy, nurturing environment.
Here’s what our kids really need to do in those precious early years of development:
From the time they’re born, our kids are exploring their environments, charting new territory.
Explore new places – indoors and outdoors, summer and winter, rain and snow. Follow animal tracks and look for pretty rocks.
Don’t be afraid to introduce numbers, letters, scientific concepts, maps, and other “school-y” things, but let them take the lead. If they’re interested, do more. If not, set it aside for another day. Play with language. Rhyme together. Tell stories. Explore imaginary worlds together. Surround yourselves with good books, games, and building materials.
But – follow their lead. If they’re signaling that they’re not ready, that’s ok. Even if it’s your favorite thing in the world — don’t ruin it for them by force-feeding.
When kids are learning to walk, we’re great encouragers. “Good try!” “Do it again.” But our expectations soon get harsher. Our kids need to know they have permission to try new things and fail… within safe boundaries, of course.
Want to pour your own water? Let me hold your glass.
Think you can reach something in the cupboard? Go for it. I’m right here.
My kids wear mostly second-hand clothes. One reason is that we try to use less of the world’s resources, but a bigger reason is that I find myself getting stressed if my kid has a $20 shirt on and spills, splatters, scratches or tears said item of clothing.
Spills, splatters, scratches, and tears are part of the “work” of childhood.
If my kids are drawing with chalk on the driveway, I want them to be able to draw to their hearts’ content without worrying about whether their pants get scuffed. If we’re painting or baking or running in the backyard, I want them to do so freely, without worrying about whether there are grass stains, oil splatters, or random dots of color.
Yes, there are times to dress up, and we seek to care for the clothes we have, but kids need permission to get dirty… and to help with the cleanup as well. There’s value there too.
Kids are inherently creative. Some are more “out-of-the-box” than others, but it gives all children joy to make something entirely of their own invention, that has never been made before.
Whether that’s open-ended art projects or (my favorite) – pairing – combining two items that are not usually used together (magna-tiles and jingle bells, for example), kids need to be able to make things their own, not just copy a template.
One of the biggest mistakes preschools make is that they want their kids’ art to be “pretty” or “perfect”, so they prep all the materials and tell the kids where to put each piece, removing the creative process from the “art” and replacing it, in essence, with a factory assembly.
Kids have plenty of opportunities to show they can listen and follow directions. They need a place to exercise their creative potential.
If you have older children, find ways to include your littles in their siblings’ world. Let them tag along, help with the experiment, listen to the read-aloud, draw with the same art medium. They love being part of their older siblings’ lives, and they might pick up a few things along the way. Try not to isolate them, except when necessary.
By age 3-4, most children are usually also ready to participate in some level of organized activities. These are important as they give the kids opportunities to interact with other adults and kids, to learn that different expectations exist in different settings, and it can allow them to try things outside of what we can offer at home.
Library programs, preschool classes, child-appropriate (read: realistic expectations) sports, art, and music activities, church groups, camps… they don’t need to do everything (and probably shouldn’t), but by age four at least one activity a week is probably helpful.
Within that schedule, we built in time to stop. We had rest days built in – pajama days. My kids love pajama days.
We talk so much about our kids developing self-awareness, and part of that self-awareness and mindfulness we find everywhere is listening to our bodies. Knowing when we need a break and being able to advocate for ourselves when we do.
It can get tricky with multiple kids of various ages and stages. Sometimes, the one just needs to push through, or the others have to give something up because the other requires a break. That’s an important skill too — respecting others’ boundaries and their needs.
If your kid is trying a new activity and is miserable, it may be time to stop. If a particular schedule or new expectation (potty training, anyone?!?) is causing huge amounts of anxiety, it may be time to stop.
About 18 months ago, I enrolled my barely-3-year-olds in a little 5-week soccer program with a coach the family already knew and trusted. Three weeks in, the girls were still mostly on my lap, refusing to participate unless I held their hands. We stopped going, and I never mentioned it again. Two months ago, one of my now 4-year-olds told me she was ready for soccer. We signed up (same coach & location), and now they’re ready and having a blast.
Kids need people they can connect with, people who are interested in them, can talk about shared interests, imagine together, and people they can trust. These can be same-aged peers like the traditional preschool, but it doesn’t have to be.
Older and younger siblings, playmates, parents, grandparents, babysitters, neighbors, librarians… there are so many good opportunities for meaningful connections.
When my oldest was 3, and I had twin newborns, I hired a 10-year-old mother’s helper to come over and give my son some extra attention. Be creative. Find people who like your kids and respect them for who they are, and find ways for them to spend time together.
Life and learning are a cause for celebration. Learning is not boring and should not be confined to a worksheet, table, and chair. Without being fake or gimmicky, let your family celebrate what you’re doing together. Talk about it at dinner. Have your kid call Grandpa to tell him what 4+2 is. Talk about your favorite book with the librarian.
This isn’t bragging. It’s widening your circle and creating a community where learning is exciting, fun, and meaningful.
Your kids are amazing. Their learning is incredible. Give them space and permission to keep going.
You got this, Mama.
As a side note: any mention of “drilling,” an over-reliance on technology, or a replication of elementary-level (or higher) expectations on younger kids are big warning signs of environments that can be harmful to children.