Saturday, October 24, 2015

Jewels of Astonishing Worth Part 5 - Free Play

Providing young children with ample opportunity for exploring the world and using their senses may be a key component of the preschool years, but along with that comes the  need for free play.

Certainly, as mentioned in the previous post, children benefit from some guidance as they explore the world, some assistance in learning to use their senses, but just a little.
“The notion of supplementing Nature from the cradle is a dangerous one. A little guiding, a little restraining, much reverent watching, Nature asks of us; but beyond that, it is the wisdom of parents to leave children as much as may be to Nature, and "to a higher Power than Nature itself."”

Charlotte Mason believed children must be fairly free to do as they choose during these years.
“Nature will look after him and give him promptings of desire to know many things; and somebody must tell as he wants to know; and to do many things, and somebody should be handy just to put him in the way; and to be many things, naughty and good, and somebody should give direction.”

Modern research confirms this as the "wisest course" because young children will find what they need for their proper stage of development on their own.
“Many studies support the notion that brains--and the organisms attached to them--tend to gravitate to the types of stimulation that they need at different stages of development.  If we encourage children to make choices from a selected variety of available challenges, both environmental and intellectual, we are no doubt following the wisest course.”
Jane Healy Endangered Minds p. 72

The children have to do the learning themselves.
“Children need stimulation and intellectual challenges, but they must be actively involved in their learning, not responding passively while another brain--their teacher’s or parent’s--laboriously develops new synapses in their behalf!”
Healy p. 73
“Knowing this, it's more important than ever to give children's remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free rein. That means a rich, stable, and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play. Not school for babies.”
Structured activities, as documented in a previous post in this series, negatively impact future learning.  Less structure has positive effects.
"The more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning."
Jane E. Barker, Andrei D. Semenov, Laura Michaelson, Lindsay S. Provan, Hannah R. Snyder and Yuko Munakata ORIGINAL RESEARCH ARTICLE Frontiers in Psychology


"Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions."
David Whitebread "School starting age: the evidence" University of Cambridge Research

"Physical, constructional and social play supports children in developing their skills of intellectual and emotional ‘self-regulation’, skills which have been shown to be crucial in early learning and development."
David Whitebread "School starting age: the evidence" University of Cambridge Research


Jewels of Astonishing Worth - What is a Child? (Series Introduction)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Jewels of Astonishing Worth Part 4 - Training the Senses and Exploring the World

If we choose to counter popular culture by delaying formal academics until first grade, then what do we do during all the years before then?  The next few posts will touch on a few key areas.

Charlotte Mason says that “wider training of the senses” is a mother’s “primary duty.”  To begin with, this simply means allowing the child opportunities to use his senses, to explore his world.
“But it is possible that the child's marvellous power of obtaining knowledge by means of his senses may be undervalued; that the field may be too circumscribed; and that, during the first six or seven years in which he might have become intimately acquainted with the properties and history of every natural object within his reach, he has obtained, exact ideas, it is true––can distinguish a rhomboid from a pentagon, a primary from a secondary colour, has learned to see so truly that he can copy what he sees in folded paper or woven straw,––but this at the expense of much of that real knowledge of the external world which at no time of his life will he be so fitted to acquire. Therefore, while the exact nicely graduated training of the Kindergarten may be of value, the mother will endeavour to give it by the way, and will by no means let it stand for that wider training of the senses, to secure which for her children is a primary duty.” 
This "training" begins naturally if opportunities are provided.
“Watch a child standing at gaze at some sight new to him––a plough at work, for instance––and you will see he is as naturally occupied as is a babe at the breast; he is, in fact, taking in the intellectual food which the working faculty of his brain at this period requires. In his early years the child is all eyes; he observes, or, more truly, he perceives, calling sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing to his aid, that he may learn all that is discoverable by him about every new thing that comes under his notice.”
“A great deal has been said lately about the danger of overpressure, of requiring too much mental work from a child of tender years. The danger exists; but lies, not in giving the child too much, but in giving him the wrong thing to do, the sort of work for which the present state of his mental development does not fit him. Who expects a boy in petticoats to lift half a hundredweight? But give the child work that Nature intended for him, and the quantity he can get through with ease is practically unlimited. Whoever saw a child tired of seeing, of examining in his own way, unfamiliar things? This is the sort of mental nourishment for which he has an unbounded appetite, because it is that food of the mind on which, for the present, he is meant to grow.”

Learning to use his senses, exploring the world around him, prepares him for later more abstract learning.
“The child has truly a great deal to do before he is in a condition to 'believe his own eyes'; but Nature teaches so gently, so gradually, so persistently, that he is never overdone, but goes on gathering little stores of knowledge about whatever comes before him.
 And this is the process the child should continue for the first few years of his life. Now is the storing time which should be spent in laying up images of things familiar. By-and-by he will have to conceive of things he has never seen: how can he do it except by comparison with things he has seen and knows? By-and-by he will be called upon to reflect, understand, reason; what material will he have, unless he has a magazine of facts to go upon? The child who has been made to observe how high in the heavens the sun is at noon on a summer's day, how low at noon on a day in mid-winter, is able to conceive of the great heat of the tropics under a vertical sun, and to understand the climate of a place depends greatly upon the mean height the sun reaches above the horizon.”
Charlotte Mason realized that a hundred years ago.  Educators still know it to be true today. Audobon magazine in winter 2012 featured a nature-based preschool:
“Noticing differences between objects, like seeds and burrs, helps wire the brain, nurturing initial math and pre-reading skills that develop from the ages of one through four.”

Researchers recognize that mental readiness often relies on physical development, specifically using the senses.
"In order for children to read, write and spell they must be developmentally ready. Some are ready at the age of four or five, some not for many years later. This readiness includes complex neurological pathways and kinesthetic awareness. Such readiness isn’t created by workbooks or computer programs. It’s the result of brain maturation as well as rich experiences found in bodily sensation and movement."

Charlotte Mason encouraged mothers to take their young children outside for as much of the day as feasible. In her first volume, she catalogues many ways in which outdoor time can be spent to good purpose.  (Do read through the Out-of-Door Life section of Volume 1.) This time spent outdoors doesn't just provide the sensory opportunities already mentioned above.

One purpose of the outdoor explorations is to learn about the world.
“It would be well if we all persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.”

This requires both opportunity and some gentle direction.
“Now, consider what a culpable waste of intellectual energy it is to shut up a child, blessed with this inordinate capacity for seeing and knowing, within the four walls of a house, or the dreary streets of a town. Or suppose that he is let run loose in the country where there is plenty to see, it is nearly as bad to let this great faculty of the child's dissipate itself in random observations for want of method and direction.”
“There is no end to the store of common information, got in such a way that it will never be forgotten, with which an intelligent child may furnish himself before he begins his school career. The boy who can tell you off-hand where to find each of the half-dozen most graceful birches, the three or four finest ash trees in the neighbourhood of his home, has chances in a life a dozen to one compared with the lower, slower intelligence that does not know an elm from an oak––not merely chances of success, but chances of a larger, happier life, for it is curious how certain feelings are linked with the mere observation of Nature and natural objects.”
Time outside also provides exercise for the body.
“The afternoon's games, after luncheon, are an important part of the day's doings for the elder children, though the younger have probably worn themselves out by this time with the ceaseless restlessness by means of which Nature provides for the due development of muscular tissue in them; let them sleep in the sweet air, and awake refreshed. Meanwhile, the elders play; the more they run, and shout, and toss their arms, the more healthful is the play.”
“The outdoors is the very best place for preschoolers to practice and master emerging physical skills."
Rae Pica "Take It Outside!" Earlychildhood News

Current research has found other benefits from hours outside.
“Studies also show that just 20 minutes spent outdoors improves concentration in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as much as, if not more than, medication. That’s in addition to the physical benefits of exercise and exposure to vitamin D (which helps build strong bones).
“The outside is also important because the outdoor light stimulates the pineal gland, the part of the brain that regulates the "biological clock," is vital to the immune system, and makes us feel happier.”
Rae Pica "Take It Outside!" Earlychildhood News
“Outside, children are more likely to invent games. As they do, they're able to express themselves and learn about the world in their own way. They feel safe and in control, which promotes autonomy, decision-making, and organizational skills. Inventing rules for games (as preschoolers like to do) promotes an understanding of why rules are necessary. Although the children are only playing to have fun, they're learning
  • communication skills and vocabulary (as they invent, modify, and enforce rules)
  • number relationships (as they keep score and count)
  • social customs (as they learn to play together and cooperate)."
Rae Pica "Take It Outside!" Earlychildhood News

Jewels of Astonishing Worth - What is a Child? (Series Introduction)

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Jewels of Astonishing Worth Part 3 - Do preschoolers need academic instruction?

Sending a child to first grade without having had several years of formal or semi-formal academic instruction almost, these days, amounts to parental neglect as far as most parents or schools see it.  Middle class parents routinely consider two or three day preschool for academic preparation even when a parent stays home to care for children, and barring that, the at-home parent expects to begin lessons of some sort by age two or three.

Charlotte Mason discouraged formal lessons before the age of six, for developmental reasons.  Prior to that age, she believed, children's brains required freedom to choose their learning opportunities, within boundaries.  Young children have so much learning to do simply to satisfy the demands of their own brains and bodies that imposing additional learning burdens, even if they are fun, would be too much strain as well as limiting the opportunities for the learning they naturally need.
“His nerve centres and brain power have been unduly taxed, some of the joy of living has been taken from him, and though his baby response to direct education is very charming, he has less latent power left for the future calls of life.” 

Is an early start on academics necessary for later success in school and, more importantly, life?  Research says it is not.
"[Dr. Lillian] Katz also writes in the report that 'earlier is better' is not supported in neurological research, which 'does not imply that formal academic instruction is the way to optimize early brain development.'”

“On the contrary, a number of longitudinal follow-up studies indicate that while formal instruction produces good test results in the short term, preschool curriculum and teaching methods emphasizing children’s interactive roles and initiative, while not so impressive in the short term, yield better school achievement in the long term (Golbeck, 2001, Marcon, 2002; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1993).”

Actually, research shows that formal instruction impedes development rather than assisting it.  For one thing, teaching specific concepts to young children keeps them focused on those specific concepts and prevents their learning how to discover for themselves.
“Direct instruction really can limit young children's learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions.”
“Youngsters who are hurried from one activity to another may get lots of sensory input but be shortchanged on the time-consuming process of forming association networks to understand and organize experience meaningfully.”
Jane Healy, Ph.D. Endangered Minds p. 74
"Studies have compared groups of children in New Zealand who started formal literacy lessons at ages 5 and 7. Their results show that the early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may be damaging. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later. "
David Whitebread "School starting age: the evidence" University of Cambridge Research
Also, young brains, as Charlotte Mason suggested, have vital learning tasks of their own to do, and formal learning gets in the way of that work.
“It is much more difficult, however, to reorganize a brain than it is to organize it in the first place. ‘Organization inhibits reorganization,’ say the scientists. Carving out neuronal tracks for certain types of learning is best accomplished when the synapses for that particular skill are most malleable, before they ‘firm up’ around certain types of responses.”  
Healy p. 53
Significantly, young children may not be ready for the skills being taught, which can cause the growing brain to develop inefficiently.
“Before brain regions are myelinated, they do not operate efficiently.  For this reason, trying to ‘make’ children master academic skills for which they do not have the requisite maturation may result in mixed-up patterns of learning.  As we have seen, the essence of functional plasticity is that any kind of learning--reading, math, spelling, handwriting, etc.--may be accomplished by any of several systems. Natureally, we want children to plug each piece of learning into the best system for that particular job.  If the right one isn’t yet available or working smoothly, however, forcing may create a functional organization in which less adaptive, ‘lower' systems are trained to do the work.”  
Healy p. 67
Delaying formal academics, far from being a sign of neglect, allows young children to learn what is neurologically appropriate for them at the time they are developmentally ready.

Jewels of Astonishing Worth - What is a Child? (Series Introduction)