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New Study Backs Creative Approach for Early Childhood Education

Countless comedies and sitcoms have acquired some of their most entertaining material by simply watching parents, parents of young children, I might add. They are a unique breed of people, newly born within their roles as guardians of new and precious life. What may have only been a tendency prior to this role can become a raving preoccupation. I’m speaking, of course, of the innate competitiveness that rears its head when these offspring begin to interact socially and begin their walk toward education.

And while parents of older children still suffer from the malady, their responses usually are a bit more subtle.

As a young parent, it's hard to imagine that your child will ever be old enough to attend school … you're just hoping to get through the crawling and walking and tantrum stages ... but believe me, it’s as my mother said, “In the blink of an eye.”

And then comes the decision of when and how to educate. Truly, it can be quite confusing. And when you begin to compare notes with friends and acquaintances that’ve walked the road before you, the perplexity of your situation takes on new heights.

And whether you choose the well traveled path of homeschool or whether you choose a more institutional approach, the choices of “how” you educate your child remains the same.

The world we live in is complex and competitive. Would it not stand to reason then that we need to begin preparing our children as early as possible for these challenges and demands? Shouldn’t we, as good parents, give them opportunities that may have been unavailable to us, at younger ages? Doesn’t it stand to reason that the sooner we begin instructing our children, the smarter and more educated they will become? That because of that earlier education, they will be more successful, happier and have better jobs? It is the course many, many have chosen. It seems reasonable and advantageous.

Two new studies on early childhood cognition, however, say otherwise. One from MIT and one from UC-Berkley experiments with two different educational methods; that of direct instruction and that of the exploration approach in educating preschool age children. These studies produced interesting results. I have linked the two studies above.

What fascinated me was that two different institutions with two unique studies could find such strikingly similar conclusions. In very brief summary, this study revealed that children who were given the opportunity to explore and imagine stayed with the object they were learning about (a toy and its functions) longer and were more creative with discovering its multiple uses than those children who were instructed on exactly what and how they could make the toy perform. While both groups learned the same techniques, the children in the first group stayed with it the toy longer and learned more from their own experiments and exploration than those in the second group. (Visit the link below for a more detailed summary of these two studies.)
So the question remains on which educational approach will serve your child best; the direct approach to education or the exploration or creative approach. For me … I chose both in early education. One approach for preschool and the other for kindergarten.

When it came time to make these decisions for my son, I remember well the mental mulling and studying I did when it came time for preschool. And the choices were many and varied. I opted for the institutional approach only because as an only child, his socialization seemed the most imperative at the time. I choose a private preschool that emphasized learning through exploration and creativity. While the instructors were credential and accredited, they allowed the children the freedom of discovery.

We moved to a new city following the advent of kindergarten. I again chose a private school but the philosophy was much more academic with a direct instruction approach. Hoping, I suppose, that I’d made the right decision for preschool yet now feeling the need to make sure he had the fundamentals of education.

I can’t tell you how varied the results were and how many nights I lamented the fact that in kindergarten and first grade he wasn’t completely grasping the intricacies of cursive writing. I worried myself to pieces over whether he could sit for hours on end and listen to his teacher instruct without giving the children freedom to question and wonder. I tried to explain to him why he received poor marks on some of his coloring sheets because he had chosen the “wrong” colors for images in the piece.

Today, I have a better perspective. And while each year produces its own challenges and parental experiments and I continue to make wrong choices or at least inferior choices, I do know that more and more I’m learning to make the right ones for him as well. And those “right” choices often involve listening to my own motherly instinct, continually in development, continually honed by my mistakes.

Yes, our world is complex and yes our world will be harder, in some respects, for our children to navigate than it’s been for us. Their challenges in technology and the environment will most assuredly top anything we can even conceive at this point. It will be critical, I’m sure, that they can perform both academically and professionally at a level not yet reached in our world today. Securing employment and accomplishing the American dream may be much more difficult as everything that was is changing before our eyes.

But let us never be tempted that in our zeal to do what’s best for our children, we actually rob them of the most precious and developmentally important stage of their entire life … that of childhood itself. A stage that should be incubated against what will very soon become the whole existence of their life; their education. Demands are so great on school age children these days. We must protect them as long as we can. We must encourage and develop and allow their minds to wander and wonder and explore … and create. For to my mind, our very future depends on it.

Excellent article: Why Preschool Shouldn't Be Like School by Alison Gopnik

Image by Getty

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