Monday, April 16, 2012

What to look for in a pre-school

Choosing a pre-school can be quite stressful these days! Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Amelia; play-based, academic-based. And then the tuition! You may find the "perfect school", only to realize that it is out of your price range.  So, when you go to visit a school, what exactly should you look for?

In Your Child's Growing Mind, educational psychologist Jane M. Healy says, "Research shows that the most positive outcomes for intelligence and behavior are related to small group size, a close, affectionate relationship with the caregiver, language stimulation, and the level of education of the caregiver.

She gives the following advice when choosing a caregiver:

-The caregiver should let the children take the lead in play - her role is to show and guide the children rather than direct or boss them.
-The caregiver should provide varied sensory stimulation and many opportunities for free play as well as planned and meaningful experience and for active movement like climbing and exploration.
-The caregiver should also have good grammar, vocabulary, and voice quality.

Some important things to look for at a pre-school are a sand and water table, a book corner, a pet to care for, and an art corner.  Toys should be open-ended and should include blocks, puzzles, stitchery, dolls, and puppets.

I find this advice very helpful. I have not yet chosen a pre-school for my youngest son, but when I do choose a school, I'll know what to look for, and if I believe that it has shortcomings, at least I will know how to compensate at home.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What are the best toys for young children?

I love seeking out the best toys and games for my children. I used to find it overwhelming, which is not surprising given the thousands of choices that are out there!  However, once I started to learn more about the way children learn, my options became more limited, and the process became more fun because I knew what skills I would be fostering with each purchase. 

In her book Your Child's Growing Mind, Healy gives some good guidelines for finding the best toys for children ages 2-7.  She states that a toy should "encourage the child to manipulate, interact, or figure something out."  If there is only one "right" way to play with a toy, or if a toy tries to teach routine academic skills, opportunities for exploration and discovery are limited.  She suggests simple, open ended toys such as:

Toys that develop fine motor control and sequencing: (which is related to later attention and self-control skills, handwriting, and proficiency in the arts)
-Household objects like tools, kitchen gadgets, and cooking utensils
-Nesting and stacking toys, containers for dumping and pouring
-Art materials
-Stringing and sorting materials (these require active handling and teach relationships like top, middle, bottom or small, bigger, biggest)
-Wooden unit blocks in graduated sizes and shapes

Toys for pretend:
- dress-up clothes
- dolls and puppets
- small figurines
- pretend tools , utensils

Toys for movement:
- things to safely climb in, on, or through
- toys for throwing and catching
- toys for balancing or spinning

Board and card games. Healy state that the biggest indicator of math success in first grade is how many board and card games a child's parent has played with them.

I find it somewhat ironic that all those electronic toys that, as parents, we often despise for their annoying noises and expensive batteries are also the ones that have virtually no benefits for children.  I've found that most toys labeled "educational" for children under 6 are actually not developmentally appropriate ways for them to learn!  I actually feel kind of "duped" by our consumer culture.  I bought the Baby Einstein DVDs, the Leap Frog electronic learning games, the pre-school workbooks - all because they were marketed to me as "educational."  I thought I was helping my son learn, but mostly I think I was just giving my money to toy companies.  

Now, I have the pleasure of buying beautiful, sometimes hand-made toys that my children get hours of enjoyment out of, and that I like to hold and look at myself.  They are learning with these toys and they don't even know it.

Here are some links to a just a few toys that I have purchased (or received as gifts) for my boys that both they and I really enjoy:

handmade wood building blocks:

lacing beads: 

crawl tunnel:

block crayons:

cooperative board game:


card game:

Monday, April 9, 2012

Your Child's Growing Mind

The most recent book that I finished is called Your Child's Growing Mind by Jane M. Healy.  I highly recommend it to any parent.
Jane Healy is a teacher, author, and lecturer who has worked with all ages from pre-school to graduate school.  She holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology, and did post-doctoral work in developmental neuropsychology.  She also has raised three children and has 6 grandchildren.
In this book, she explains how the mind of a child learns. She starts at birth and goes through adolescence, and she give lists of specific activities you can do with your child at each stage to encourage brain development.
Some issues she discusses are appropriate toys, what to look for in a pre-school, the importance of fantasy play, the importance of movement, the dangers of trying to push learning of higher-level skills too early, activities that use both the left and right brain hemispheres, language, IQ, memory, motivation, and creativity.  She also includes many specific activities for fostering reading, writing, math, and science.

There is so much great information in this book, but I will try to focus on a few ideas.  Since my children are almost two and 5 1/2, I was most interested in the information pertaining to 2-6 year olds.

If I had to choose the most interesting thing that I learned from this book, it would probably be that teaching higher level skills, such as reading, at an earlier age is actually often detrimental rather than helpful for brain development.  Healy states, "Forced learning of any type may result in the use of lower systems, since higher ones have not yet developed. . . The 'habit' of using inferior brain areas for higher level tasks (such as reading) and of receiving instruction rather than creating patterns of meaning can lead to difficulties later in organizing information into abstract patterns."  So how can you tell if your child is ready to learn to read? She says that when you are reading to him, he will ask "What does that say?"  Some children will do this at age three. Others not until age 7.  Of course, if your child attends public school ( or most private schools, as well) in the United States, he will be taught to read in Kindergarten, most likely when he is 5 years old, and will most likely learn to do it.
One of the things she recommends is to steer clear of workbooks and other "learning" materials that teach rote-level academic tasks such as letters and numbers.  "Until age 6 or 7, a child's "work" is to develop the basis for abstract thought by mastering his physical environment and by learning to use language."  She says that workbooks are inappropriate for children under 6.   I was shocked when I first read this. I had been giving Aiden workbooks starting at age 4 and he usually enjoyed them.  I thought I was doing the best thing I could for his brain development. I now know (from reading this and several other sources) that his time would have been better spent on make-believe play, climbing on playground equipment, or singing songs and making rhymes. ( Not that he didn't do that, too - I just didn't realize the profound importance these have on brain development.)

Which brings us to another very interesting thing that I learned: that movement plays a key role in the brain development of children.  I always knew that exercise was important for children's health and I've always believed that being outdoors is good for the soul, but I didn't realize that activities such as spinning and balancing actually exercise parts of the brain that are used in academic learning (the cerebellum).  Nor did I realize that climbing in, on, around, and through things give a child a sense of his place in space, which is important later on in learning math.  Or that throwing, catching, and climbing promote coordination of the two sides of the body (and therefore, the two hemispheres of the brain), which is important for building intellectual skills.

Healy also explains the importance of dramatic play for young children. Playing pretend isn't just about having fun. She describes fantasy play as "the gateway to metaphor, scientific insight, and invention."  She states that dramatic play teaches social skills more effectively than any other type of instruction. Children who are good at pretend play also generally get along better socially.

Some other topics from this book that I would like to discuss include choosing caregivers/pre-schools, fostering creativity, and the best toys for brain-building in young children.  However, this is a lot to talk about, so I will include this in my future posts.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pre-school eductaion: Waldorf vs. Montessori

I have recently been reading a lot about how young children learn, and there are two educational philosophies that I think are wonderful for the pre-school aged child: Montessori and Waldorf.


My son, Aiden had the opportunity to attend a wonderful little Montessori school for  2 1/2 years, from age 2-4.  I fell in love with Montessori. He learned so much there, and in such a loving environment.  Montessori strives to nurture the whole child - emotionally, intellectually, and physically.  They are very intent on fostering independence. They let the child choose his own work and pace of learning.  The areas of learning include:

Practical life (this includes improving fine and gross motor skills through pouring, scooping, lacing, folding, sweeping, dusting, etc.)

Sensorial (includes sorting, matching, putting things in order by size, weight, color, etc)

Language -  from 2009-2010 edition of Child of the World, Montessori from Three to Six Years :

Reading and writing should not be taught to a child before age six or seven, but, given the sensorial experiences of appropriate materials a child of normal intelligence will quite naturally teach herself to read and write sometimes as early as three or four years of age.
Here is a quote from Dr. Montessori about her experience in the first Casa dei Bambini, "house of children," in Rome in the beginning of this century:
Ours was a house for children, rather than a real school. We had prepared a place for children where a diffused culture could be assimilated from the environment, without any need for direct instruction . . . Yet these children learned to read and write before they were five, and no one had given them any lessons. At that time it seemed miraculous that children of four and a half should be able to write, and that they should have learned without the feeling of having been taught.
We puzzled over it for a long time. Only after repeated experiments did we conclude with certainty that all children are endowed with this capacity to absorb culture. If this be true—we then argued—if culture can be acquired without effort, let us provide the children with other elements of culture. And then we saw them absorbfar more than reading and writing: botany, zoology, mathematics, geography, and all with the same ease, spontaneously and without getting tired.
And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher's task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.

Math (uses hands-on materials where the child can compare size, weight, and numbers both by sight and touch- for example, they use beads to teach decimal places: one single bead, a rod of 10 beads, a square of 100 beads, and a cube of 1000 beads. Give the child a #: 1,316.  Then she is to put (starting at the left) one cube , then 3 squares, then 1 rod, and finally 6 single beads. The child is then actually looking at 1,316 beads to get a visual idea of that number as an amount, and is learning about the physical order of decimal places in a written number.)

Art  - art history and appreciation, as well as experimenting with many different art materials and techniques


Recently, I began to learn about Waldorf education.  In some respects it is very much like Montessori.  They respect children as individuals and aim to nurture the whole child.  Waldorf students also spend a lot of time on 'practical life" type activities.  However, they have fundamental differences.  In Waldorf, the teacher leads, not the student.  They have the same goal as Montessori in that they want the child to become good at decision making, but they believe that giving them too many choices too early hinders their decision-making abilities rather than helping them.  They also don't believe in teaching concepts to pre-school age children. They do not even expose them to letters and numbers at the pre-school level.  They believe that these years are a time to foster the child's imagination through make -believe play and a time to allow the child to spend his energy on physical growth.  They believe rhythm and balance are essential in daily and weekly routines and seasonal traditions.  Songs, rhymes, and stories (especially fairy tales) are part of each day.  Toys at a Waldorf pre-school are all-natural and very simple: cloth dolls, wooden toys, silk squares, pinecones, stones, shells, etc. - many are things that children can pretend are different things at different times.  In Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne says that make-believe play helps develop executive function, which includes the ability to self-regulate, to amend one's behavior, emotions, and impulses appropriately to one's environment and situation.  They believe art is important for children to experience, but they mainly use only a few media: watercolor paints, beeswax for sculpting, and block crayons.

We have started attending a weekly play group at the local Waldorf school. Both of my boys are thoroughly enjoying it.  In fact, although this group is for ages 18 months to 3 years, and Aiden is tagging along, I think he is getting more out of it than Owen.  I think it is a good release for him after a long day of Kindergarten.

I really like aspects of both philosophies, but I really wish I knew exactly how doing one over the other affects children in the long-term.  Do Montessori -trained kids grow up to be more intellectual?  Do Waldorf-trained kids grow up to be more imaginative? Is one group better at making decisions?  Does one group have more of a sense of inner peace and well-being? While I have not found concrete answers to these subjective questions,  I have found scientific data that backs up practices of both philosophies.

For now, I think I like the idea of mixing the two philosophies.  I lean toward Montessori in following the child's lead. I think introducing concepts is a good thing, and if they want to learn them, let them.  However, I think it is also important to set aside time each day simply for imaginative play.

A typical Montessori classroom

A typical Waldorf classroom

Some Montessori materials

Some Waldorf-inspired toys