Monday, November 28, 2011

What Should a 4 Year Old Know?

By Alicia Bayer © 2011
Leer en Español Aquí ]

Danelle Frisbie's not-yet-four-year-old splashing away the day. 


I was on a parenting bulletin board recently and read a post by a mother who was worried that her 4 1/2 year old did not know enough. "What should a four year old know?" she asked.

Most of the answers left me not only saddened, but pretty soundly annoyed. One mom posted a laundry list of all of the things her son knew. Counting to 100, planets, how to write his first and last name, and on and on. Others chimed in with how much more their children already knew, some who were only three. A few posted URLs to lists of what each age should know. The fewest yet said that each child develops at his own pace and not to worry.

It bothered me greatly to see these mothers responding to a worried mom by adding to her concern, with lists of all the things their children could do that hers couldn't. We are such a competitive culture that even our preschoolers have become trophies and bragging rights. Childhood shouldn't be our race.

So here, I offer my list of what a four year old should know:

She should know that she is loved wholly and unconditionally, all of the time.

He should know that he is safe and he should know how to keep himself safe in public, with others, and in varied situations. He should know that he can trust his instincts about people and that he never has to do something that doesn't feel right, no matter who is asking. He should know his personal rights, and that his family will back them up.

She should know how to laugh, act silly, be goofy, and use her imagination. She should know that it is always okay to paint the sky orange and give cats six legs.

He should know his own interests and be encouraged to follow them. If he could care less about learning his numbers, his parents should realize he'll learn them accidentally, soon enough, and let him immerse himself instead in rocket ships, drawing, dinosaurs or playing in the mud.

She should know that the world is magical and that so is she. She should know that she's wonderful, brilliant, creative, compassionate and marvelous. She should know that it's just as worthy to spend the day outside making daisy chains, mud pies and fairy houses as it is to practice phonics. Scratch that -- way more worthy.

But more importantly, here is what parents need to know:

Every child learns to walk, talk, read and do algebra at his own pace and that it will have no bearing on how well he walks, talks, reads or does algebra.

The single biggest predictor of high academic achievement and high ACT scores is reading to children. Not flash cards, not workbooks, not fancy preschools, not blinking toys or computers, but mom or dad taking the time every day or night (or both!) to sit and read wonderful books with their child.

Being the smartest or most accomplished kid in class has never had any bearing on being the happiest. We are so caught up in trying to give our children "advantages" that we're giving them lives as multi-tasked and stressful as ours. One of the biggest advantages we can give our children is a simple, carefree childhood.

Our children deserve to be surrounded by books, nature, art supplies and the freedom to explore them. Most of us could get rid of 90% of our children's toys and they wouldn't be missed, but some things are important -- building toys like blocks and legos, creative toys like all types of art materials (good stuff), musical instruments (real ones and multicultural ones), dress up clothes, and books, books, books. (Incidentally, much of this can be picked up quite cheaply at thrift shops.)

Children need to have the freedom to explore with these things too -- to play with scoops of dried beans in the high chair (supervised, of course), to knead bread and make messes, to use paint and play dough and glitter at the kitchen table while we make supper even though it gets everywhere, to have a spot in the yard where it's absolutely fine to dig up all the grass and make a mud pit.

Our children need more of us. We have become so good at saying that we need to take care of ourselves that some of us have used it as an excuse to have the rest of the world take care of our kids. Yes, we all need undisturbed baths, time with friends, sanity breaks and an occasional life outside of parenthood. But we live in a time when parenting magazines recommend trying to commit to 10 minutes a day with each child and scheduling one Saturday a month as family day. That's not okay! Our children don't need Nintendos, computers, after school activities, ballet lessons, play groups and soccer practice nearly as much as they need US.

They need fathers who sit and listen to their days, mothers who join in and make crafts with them, parents who take the time to read them stories and act silly with them. They need us to take walks with them and not mind the .1 MPH pace of a toddler on a spring night. They deserve to help us make supper even though it takes twice as long and makes it twice as much work. They deserve to know that they are a priority for us and that we truly love to be with them.

And now back to those four year old skills lists: 

I know it's human nature to want to know how our children compare to others and to want to make sure we're doing all we can for them. Here is a list of what children are typically taught or should know by the end of each year of school, starting with preschool: http://www.worldbook.com/typical-course-of-study?wbredirect=1&Itemid=216

Because we homeschool, I occasionally print out the lists and check to see if there's anything glaringly absent in what my kids know. So far there hasn't been, but I get ideas sometimes for subjects to think up games about, or books to check out from the library. Whether you homeschool or not, the lists can be useful to see what kids typically learn each year and can be reassuring that they really are doing fine.

If there are areas where it seems your child is lacking, realize that it's not an indication of failure for either you or your child. You just haven't happened to cover that yet. Kids will learn whatever they're exposed to, and the idea that they all need to know these 15 things at this precise age is rather silly.

Still, if you want him to have those subjects covered then just work it into life and play with the subject and he'll naturally pick it up. Count to 60 when you're mixing a cake and he'll pick up his numbers. Get fun books from the library about space or the alphabet. Experiment with everything from backyard snow to celery stalks in food coloring. It'll all happen naturally, with much more fun and much less pressure.

My favorite advice about preschoolers is on this site: http://www.redshift.com/~bonajo/early.htm

What does a four year old need?

Much less than we realize, and much more.




Also by Bayer: 

10 Things You Should Know Before Moving Next Door to Us

Alicia Bayer lives with her husband and five children in rural Minnesota. She has run the web site, "A Magical Childhood" since 2001 and writes at the following sites:

A Magical Childhood (blog)


Magic and Mayhem (homeschooling blog)





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57 comments:

  1. That was so great to read this article! Thank you!

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  2. Oh I love this! My 5yo is currently struggling with a transition from a (fabulous!) montessori program to public school. there is so much focus on the curriculum and what he "should" know and none of all of the things you point out (and we agree) are paramountly important. At present, he's miserable and we're struggling to find the right way to support him in this new setting. Thank you for the reminder that we're not the crazy ones!

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    1. Becky,
      Have you considered a private school? One of the little boys I babysit goes to an amazing Montessori, and his momma says because of it, she will be sending him to a private school because public school is so different.
      Maybe talk with the director of your Montessori and see what he/she has to say?

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  3. This is so very true. This is how I raise my son. I feel like I'm the minority most of the time, but it feels right. Thanks for this.

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  4. As a future early childhood teacher, I thank you for this. I wholeheartedly believe that children need to be children, but that reading is highly important. By surrounding your child with a world of things to explore you will help them so much more than you would by drilling them on phonics and numbers. This post brings to mind a poem written by the founder of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education called "The Hundred Languages of Children". I would suggest it as a wonderful read to any parent or teacher.

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  5. Thank you for this. It's a wonderful reminder that my child is not on a racetrack, but rather a slow winding road.

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  6. Excellant, excellant, excellant! I have never heard/read it better explained.

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  7. Very well said. Thank you for this post. Two resources that have helped guide our perspective on this and related subjects are the book Simplicity Parenting and the film A Race to Nowhere.

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  8. love this! I have a 2 year old and feel so much pressure to school and teach her already, I always have to remind myself that our walks, baking, crafts, reading, cuddling and other home things are fine and teaching her more then enough at this age

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  9. I am delighted to see both the information in this article (my son is only two, but I keep up with several women that gave birth around the time I did, and hearing their updates on things like speech and numbers and letters always made me feel inadequate), and to see the happy little boy in the picture is wearing my favorite type of children's shoe.

    I know it's a bit off this topic, but I got some flak from relatives about my son walking in soft-soled shoes because they worried about weak arches. I know the opposit is true, as I grew up being barefoot 99% of my childhood and have perfect arches (according to a fetishist, which is another matter entirely, but I trust he knew his stuff as he was a friend I knew loved researching things as much as I).

    Of course, we can't afford to buy any more, and use hand-me-downs, but he's barefoot enough for it to not matter. Anyway, I know it's a bit different from what you normally post, but do you have any comments/articles/research on the subject? It's honestly the only problem (within my family and close friends at least) that I've had and not had a load of facts to counter their argument with. I usually just said that I'd prefer him barefoot all the time, but don't want him walking on hot/cold/rocky/whatever surfaces without that protection. If I think it's too hot, he wouldn't walk on it at all, of course.

    Going back to the ACTUAL topic (I ramble a lot, if you didn't notice, and I aoplogize). My son is two like I said, and loves to read. He gets mad when I read to him, and will take the book and read to me, which is the most adorable thing ever, even though he's just telling me what the pictures are. He loves some TV shows (Dora, Blue's Clue's, Yo Gabba Gabba, Doctor Who, and any Star Trek), but REALLY loves [retending he's IN the show. Yesterday I spent twenty minutes telling Swiper not to swipe his cars while he rtan around finding clues and tip-toeing over bridges because the dog was sleeping. But he doesn't know his alphabet. He sings the song, and several others, but it's just the tune, and random letters and made up words. I'm perfectly fine with that. I love his imagination and ingenuity. He made a camera out of a giant block that covered his eyes, and scouted for picturesque spots with a toy hot dog. He can count to 6, but only if whatever he's counting is, in his words, "awesome." He's absolutely perfect, even when he's screeching "HELP HELP! I'M LOST!" down the hallway at the top of his voice and shredding my ear drums. I have always held the belief that imagination was one of the most important things for a person to have. I personally still imagine things, and when I'm tired, but restless, I will pretend I'm a witch, or a professor, or a librarian, or geologist or something to relax my mind into sleep.

    But I still feel like I'm not encouraging him enough. Not teaching him enough. All the kids his age I know can count to 10 by themselves, know the whole alphabet, know shapes (he knows a couple, I found out this morning), and all the basic colors (knows the names, but not always the right color). Half are already potty trained, and he's just starting today. I just feel like he's behind, even though I know he's too smart for my own good.

    And this article is a good kick in the pants on telling me that my gut is right. He's fine, and perfect, and his imagination is beautiful and magical, and that all things will come in time. And I may have to read it 500 more times to get it, but I'm glad it's here for me to read, just like I'm glad to read the "wean me gently" post when I'm having a bad day and I'm not too pleased with being nursed on all day long. So thank you for posting things like this.

    And holy crap that's a really long comment.

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    1. We don't have kids, but I've been a kid all my life ;-)

      Kids who can count to 10 but who don't have any imagination can't remember much of their childhood later on I guess. The mind works with relationships between subjects by association. To associate things we learn with things we already know, we need imagination.

      Like, if I want to remember a list of numbers in a particular order I can associate number 1 with banana, number 8 with glasses, number 5 with a snake etc. Remembering the pictures of the objects is much easier than remembering the numbers.

      Learning by repetition can help, but learning by association can last a life-time.

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  10. Lovely, thank you. My 3 1/2 year old doesn't know his colours yet! Do I care? No, not a jot. He knows he is loved, he knows he is awesome, he knows to be kind to others. He knows how to rough and tumble with his brothers and he knows he is equal to them although he's the youngest. He'll learn his colours one day, he'll learn them accidentally and he'll know them just as well as the children that already know them. All my children know that their worth is not based on how well they do academically or at sports, their worth is based on their unique talents, gifts and personality and they are all worthy

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  11. LOVE this! It is so perfectly true. Thank you so much.

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  12. Thank you, thank you, thank you for being a voice of reason in amongst all this craziness!!!!

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  13. GREAT reminder. My 6 year old is leading his class and everything comes pretty easy to him. So I sometimes fall into the trap of using him as a "benchmark" for my 4 year old, who is vastly different. The younger is creative, energetic, imaginative...but not "gifted" with early reading skills. But that's ok!

    I am curious about the Worldbook link concerning curriculum at various age levels. However, the link wasn't working and I couldn't find correlative info on that website. Do you have a fresh link to provide?

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  14. I agree with the sentiment of the article but...

    "...he should know how to keep himself safe in public, with others, and in varied situations. He should know that he can trust his instincts about people and that he never has to do something that doesn't feel right, no matter who is asking. He should know his personal rights, and that his family will back them up."

    A 4-year-old is no where near developed enough to know that. Many adults aren't able to know what and who is safe.

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  15. Oh I'm giving this article a thousand loves. Perfect. Thank-you

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  16. LOVE this. Thanks :)

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  17. so so true ..... it has always been this way but i am guessing some lose these things in this crazy world we live in nowadays?! i have worked with children all my adult life and find it comforting that other people see how simple yet important it is to allow children to grow naturally and express themselves fully but with no pressure at learning .... stuff .... this comes much later and is important then ..... now let these children enjoy and get to know and explore their surroundings.......... what a wonderful piece xx

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  18. So True love this great work on it thanks for taking the time to do it for all of us to see.

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  19. Love Loved it great read and so true thanks for taking your time to post this and letting us read it.

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  20. Just a note about the link that was previously moved and not working in this article: It has been updated! :)

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  21. So I was reading along, feeling warm and fuzzy (I was unschooled and grew up in an environment very much like that which the author describes as ideal), but I did get hitched up on one thing. Maybe I'm just being all touchy and "Ethnic," but reading "Musical Instruments (real ones and multicultural ones)" was a bit of a slap.

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    1. I did a double-take when I read that part too but I think it is meant to mean real instruments and not just the common instruments but also the real multicultural ones. As in they are all real instruments but often children are only ever exposed to typical band and orchestra instruments.

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  22. Very well written, thank you, I enjoyed reading it.

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  23. Awesome. Creativity is just as good as phonics. My son can write an entire letter using the letters A and T . But to him it makes sense. I embrace it and make sure that I play what he wants more than what I want.

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  24. Thank you so much for this timely article. I need this reminder...it's so easy to get pulled into the more more more vortex.

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  25. Great article! With a 4 year old I am watching the panic Mums go into before kindergarten... they need to play play play! and be loved!

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  26. This is beautiful and the relief of it brought me to tears. My son is nearly 4 1/2 and we have committed to homeschooling. Intuitively, I have thought everything said above. I have been concerned that I am wrong. Thank you, thank you for proving such beautiful encouragement.

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  27. Thank you for this. The images alone that were painted of children being safe, loved, and happy warmed my heart today. I am a substitute and I can assure you that most times the children that struggle academically (and I did say most) are due to behavioral/emotional problems that mostly stem from home. Kids need love and safety. Have a blessed day.

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  28. Yup. My 4-year old knows she is loved, she is safe, and how to play. All I want is for her to have a happy childhood. I did and I want the same for my kids. She can get all stressed out about school in a few years... Thanks so much for writing these words of truth and wisdom!

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  29. I LOVE this article, thank you so much! I'm going to print it out. Sometimes I get concerned my almost 4 yr old isn't in preschool yet as I feel the pressure from others, but reading this gives me reassurance that we're doing fine.

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  30. Well said! I have two boys that I plan on homeschooling and it can be so hard not to compare your kids to other children and focus on what they are not doing yet. I also believe that kids should be allowed to enjoy childhood and develope at their own individual pace without being seen as a candidate for special ed or autistic. Anyways just want to say I appreciate your viewpoint and its nice to know there are people who feel the same as me, very encouraging. thank you!

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  31. Wow. absolutely beautifully written. I love everything about this.

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  32. I love this article! Mine are 5, 3 and 1.. My 5yo doesn't know her letters/numbers etc because she has no interest in knowing them right now. Since we home school and are planning on continuing for the foreseeable future there no concern of her being "behind" for Kindergarten. My main concern for them right now is teaching them to love to learn, you aren't going to love learning if its being stuffed down your throat before you are ready.

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  33. From a Grandma, thankyou, that was so well put and so true with "children"like yourself our grandchildren are in good hands.

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  34. Great article!! Thanks for writing this.

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  35. Thank you. This was a very timely article for me as I have been overly worried about how my son is progressing at kinder. He has been at me all morning to read him a book and I have kept putting it off :(. I am now getting off the computer to read it to him. Thanks again x

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  36. That article was wonderful. It really speaks to me as an ECE watching the implementation of full-day kindergarten programs here in Ontario. As it is, I think that children are being cut off from their childhood by starting school at such an early age. If I could I would push back the age which children start school in junior kindergarten by an extra year.

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  37. I completely agree! I am transitioning from a working full-time, never there for my child mom to a stay at home mom. I know the type of parent I want to be, but I am honestly having to work hard to get there.

    For any of you in a similar situation, I am currently reading a great book which gives examples and steps to get to who you want to be (Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids). I highly recommend it!

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  38. Love this article and I will definitely have to research some of your suggestions. Thank you!

    On a side note, I agree that this was poorly worded: "musical instruments (real ones and multicultural ones)"

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  39. Thank you so much for this article! I am a pre-k public school teacher for the first and last time. I've struggled so much with what the administration wants the kids to know and what I believe they should be doing. I will not be a teacher anymore as I can't handle what we are doing to our kids. I am going to be a first time mom in November and have no idea what we will do when our baby is school-aged, but I do know I will not make my child grow up too fast!

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  40. The problem is that we think our kids need to know all this stuff but the truth is we have the best educated kids in all of history but they couldn't problem solve their way out if a paper bag! They lack imagination and creativity! Stop teaching things and instead teach them how to think!

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  41. Thank you for your post. You know, I am lucky to work as a teacher for a wonderful lady named Vicki Diane Johnston M.Ed, a founder and a director of the Robert Muller Center for Living Ethics in Fairview, TX www.centerforlivingethics.org . This woman has been working for the whole quarter of a century saying just that - not only about 4 year olds. She (and now me too) says the same thing about any child of any age. She says it to parents who at first bring their stressed out children and look for alternatives and relief from the "system". Later she has to repeat it again to the same parents who are afraid to trust that their children WILL learn and want to PUSH learning onto them. But I see results year after year after year. It has been 8 years now since I’ve started to work with Ms. Vicki. She is a light in every kid's life and I know there are more and more people like her out there. I believe that our collective consciousness will bring the change about, one person at a time.

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  42. This is just what I needed to read today - thank you! I KNOW this stuff. I've already been through these years with one other child, I didn't start any type of formal schooling until grade one with him, and that only lasted for a short while as we were both going crazy. Mostly we just do life together. But for some reason I seem to have forgotten that with my second. Maybe because they are 7 years apart, I'm having a hard time remembering... or maybe it's because she is the size of a 5 or 6 year old (but she is barely 4), so I think even I forget she is still SO young. My son played and played... she needs more tasks - real life tasks and sometimes I'm too impatient to let her help. I really needed this reality check - that the years are flying by and I won't get this back with her. Thanks again.

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  43. While it's an overall great sentiment, I still don't like the pervasive gender bias, not to call it sexism. Sorry folks.

    Why is it that whenever we talk about little girls, they are pretty princesses making daisy chains and fairy houses, while 4-year-old boys are immersing themselves in rocketships and dinosaurs?

    It may be unintentional, but it is VERY telling that "she" gets the paragraphs about magic, compassion, imagination and being loved, and "he" gets the paragraphs about boundaries, standing up for oneself, and finding his own interests.

    Just saying. Yes, this articles addresses one problem, but it certainly exemplifies a whole other set of issues.

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  44. Very true. Our children aren't meant to be put on the fast-track to Harvard to make up for our own unfulfilled dreams or to give us a vicarious ego boost. They have to learn *through* play and *to* play first and foremost. Turning them into people-pleasers and trained monkeys just hinders their self-confidence and intrinsic motivation.

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  45. We have our 2yo in a Montessori school, mainly because it is better than the normal daycare/kennels, and we have 2 relatives that work there.. so he gets to spend the day with family and peers. I can't say enough good things about the self-paced learning that Montessori offers. To me it is the right way.
    That being said, I cannot agree with much of the talk above about accidental learning. Learning doesn't have to smack you in the face, but proper learning does have to be introduced, taught, and reinforced through repetition. Even Montessori teaches that way. Hoping your kid will accidentally discover space men, colors, and how many legs a cat has is nonsense. Teach the child. Guide the child. Present them with learning activities. Take them to the space museum. Play with water colors to teach the difference between orange and blue. It doesn't mean they have to paint the sky blue if they don't want to, but you can teach them the relationship of colors and how to identify them. Teach them to count everyday objects. If they choose to have 6 legs on their cat drawing...fine. Doesn't mean they have to be unaware of how many they have in real life.
    Your job as a parent is to guide and teach. The school is there to provide a framework for what society will expect from you, and initialize the learning. As a parent, it is your job to make sure they have understood the material.

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  46. I used to have my daughter 3 mornings a week, I,d pick her up early & bring her home as I was,nt allowed to have her overnight. I,d make her a cooked breakfast & we,d sit & paint pictures, make jewellery with coloured modelling clay, read books etc ( constructive stuff ) at that time she was 3 & a half.. & going to nursery. At midday i'd drop her off at nursery & her mom would then pick her up at 3pm. I was asked to attend a " stay & play " session @ the nursery, this was great, I was v.impressed to find that the children were learning basic cooking, making pastry & cheese straws etc. I filled in comment sheets & was glad to monitor her progress. . As my daughter was going to be 4 in 6 months time I broached the question on wanting to start having her stay overnight ( one day in the week & every other weekend..) I'm having to go through the court system & involving solicitor. I hav'nt seen my daughter in 6 months now & doubt i'l see her before she starts school. I,m concerned she doesn't get the one to one attention I used to give her. Is anyone else in this situation??, she is the world to me. I hope when the day finally arrives she still remembers her dad.. ( anon )

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    1. I really hope you get to see her soon. You sound like a really great Dad. Even if you aren't near her maybe you can send her letters? Or if you are not able to see her for a time you could write a journal to give her when you can start seeing her again (or keep it until she is 18 like I am doing for my kids).

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  47. I absolutely love this article as it now made me realsie how much we push our children to exceed and do more and more and more. Its a hectic life we lead and for you to remind me that all they need is Us and Fun - its what truly matters. I will put away the alphabets, the flash cards, the numbers and let her just Be! The one thing that warms my heart is that she is a bookworm. I have hundreds of books and we have been reading to her from before she was born to newborn to toddler to now prechooler. She has such a great understanding of books and stories that she walks everywhere with a book in hand. She even sits on the loo with a book :) She makes me so proud and i will dwell on the things I am doing right in her life :) so Thank You!

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  48. I loved this. I had my preschooler (now 7) in a daycare program through the school district and their policy was if the big kids weren't working neither were the 7 year olds. So, every day in the summer the pools and water play toys got laid out and the playground was open all day long. There were parents who objected because it was not "structured enough". Well this was our 2nd summer and I can assure you (and did to the parent) it was structured enough. They were structured enough to have 50 four year-olds be safe, and emphasized being polite and to have fun. I loved it. There is plenty of time for learning. We did read to our son every night (from the time he was inside me) and he is an advanced reader and has advanced math skills. Like his sister it took him a little longer to read but once he did he got it right away and if he had not we would have worked with him. I appreciate you pointing out the reading link. I think it is so important and I hear from parents all the time that they are to busy (I am a therapist that works with children and their families) and I understand but 15 minutes of reading will save you a ton of time in other ways (discipline will come easier as will bed time).

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  49. I agree with the general sentiment of this article, but as the parent of a child with some significant learning disabilities and other challenges who is also *very bright*, it isn't necessarily the case that "don't worry, he will pick XYZ when he's ready, he's so smart" etc always applies. I don't know the exact context of the mom's concern (I imagine it is more in the prepping your preschooler for Harvard vein), but sometimes this type of worry can be a valid comparison to what other kids know and can do...so I think a somewhat more ideal response would be that every kid develops at their own pace, and if you have concerns, talk to your doctor/preschool/etc about it.

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  50. The only thing I would add is that I try and teach my kids their own address. You never know when they may have to tell a police officer where they live.

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  51. Great article... and so much of what you recommend is offered, in school, through Waldorf education... Waldorf PreK and K are play based... they learn so much through play, and stories, and helping to cook their own, home made, organic snacks (can you say barley, millet, vegetable soup, rice and apples), wash their own dishes, playing with blocks made of real wood (slices of tree branches), hand knitted dolls... it goes on and on. The ECE classes are filled with magic and beauty, movement and song.

    When we first stumbled upon our local Waldorf school, I was concerned that most Waldorf students don't start to read until 2nd or 3rd grade... we're huge readers and had already been starting to push our then 4 year old to sound out words. Well, we took a step back (and more than one deep breath), and let the teachers do their magic. She didn't start reading till she was in the middle of 2nd grade, nearly 8 years old... and then she took off like wildfire. She reads faster than I do now, it seems! Devours books, has a huge vocabulary, loves reading National Geographic, among other things! She's now in 6th grade, and excelling in all subjects in our relatively new Waldorf Charter school.
    www.WhyWaldorfWorks.org is a great place to get more information.

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