The Ideal Early Childhood Education

In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother's first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet and growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it for the most part spent out in the fresh air.

~Charlotte Mason

I hesitate to call this post "the kindergarten post." There have been lots of notes requesting "The Kindergarten Post." So, if you've been asking, this is it. Sort of. But more accurately, this is the starting to think through "Learning at Home with 3-6-Year-Olds" post.

I had several opportunities to observe and teach in many different settings while in college and right after graduation. The three that I look upon most fondly all had quite a few things in common. One of those things stands out: they considered the "kindergarten year" to be more than one year.

In the two private school settings (each of a different philosophy), children were grouped in "family groupings" and a class was composed of children who were three to six years old. In the public school setting, I taught in a "transitional first grade," a class specifically designed to give children a three year kindergarten and first grade experience. In all three settings, there were very bright children who were still "technically" kindergartners during their six-year-old year. And in all three settings, children were peaceful. These were three settings that considered the integrated development of the child and weighted social and emotional growth equally or more heavily than academic growth.


Karoline has been talking incessantly about kindergarten.  A couple of months ago she asked her daddy if she is in kindergarten now. He shot me a quizzical look and I nodded. We pay very little attention to "grades" around here. If she wants to say she's in kindergarten, she certainly can. And she is. She's four. In this house, kindergarteners are between three and six years old. {Interestingly, one of the big indicators for first grade readiness in all three of the programs above was the loss of baby teeth, also called the change of teeth. Not sure why I put that there. Couldn't find another place to mention it.}

So, Karoline is officially in kindergarten. And since Sarah Annie will be three in late October. (Can you believe it? Yeah, me neither.) She will soon be in "kindergarten," too. I asked Karoline early last week what she wanted to learn in kindergarten. She was sitting all curled up on the blue chair in the room that has become our craft studio. I was sewing. The reply came quickly, "I want to learn to sew." Well, ok, we can do that. We'll learn together.

I had a hunch. So I did a little experiment.

The next time I asked Karoline what she wanted to learn in kindergarten, I was cooking. She wants to learn to cook.

I began to futher test my theory.

I'm knitting. She wants to "knit better."

I'm dusting. She wants to polish furniture.

I'm doing laundry. She wants to learn to fold socks "the tricky way."

If I'm doing it, she wants to learn to do it. And if it has to do with bringing order and beauty to her environment, all the better. She is sensitive to order and beauty in her world right now. 

And so she shall work alongside me, both of us using our hands. Whether we call it "practical life"  or  "life skills," little ones should be spending lots of time doing meaningful activities with their hands. They should learn to use real tools (whether knitting or sewing or cooking or woodworking or vacuuming dust bunnies) carefully and to return their environments to order every single time. And those environments? 



Those environments, the ones in which peaceful children thrive, are thoughtfully prepared. They don't have to be special child-sized rooms; they just have to be rooms where children are welcomed and considered. They have to be spaces where children come alongside an adult who cares and learns what it is to be a compassionate, empathetic, to respect space and boundaries, to care for the small environment that he shares with his immediate community.

In two of the three environments I mentioned above, the schools strive as much as possible to create "homelike" spaces. There is intentional "family grouping," which means classes of children aged two-and-a-half up to and including age six. Those of us who educate at home already have the underpinnings of the best early childhood school environment. We have a home atmosphere and we have family groupings.


The goal within the environment probably should be clearly defined in our minds, though, even at home, maybe especially at home. We must be intentional, lest the opportunities slip through our fingers. And we must be patient. This is not about barreling through a checklist of academic proficiencies. There is a movement afoot to accelerate through academics. Is he reading yet? Can he work equations? Is his handwriting clear ? What grade is he in?


Those are not the questions of my intentions in the early childhood years. I close my ears to them. Because they are not true to my own sense of what is valuable for our family. When I first started homeschooling, a generation ago now, I was primarily motivated by the opportunity to spend our days learning together as a family.  I had taught in classrooms. Some quite good, some really awful. The idea of  family groupings so appealed to me in college that I did a senior honors project on it. Little did I know back then that the idea would grow organically in my home. We were creating our own family grouping in our own nurturing environment. We wanted to teach them to think creatively, to pursue their passions, to wonder and watch. And Mike and I both firmly believed in providing the time. Time. The desire to homeschool grew out of a life-changing experience. I talked at length in this old piece on preschool about what cancer taught me about time and young children. Really, none of this will make much sense unless you read that. 



Our primary goal in this home, with these children, is not academic excellence. It is time

Our primary goal is living a life of faith wholeheartedly together as a family. Our primary goal is to give them time for intimate relationships--with God, with nature, with art, with literature, with science, with us. This is what we have chosen. It is what is right for our family--for this husband and wife and the children God has given them.

Please don't misunderstand. I think academic excellence is a worthy endeavor. I just don't think my children need to get a leg up on algebra in the second grade at the expense of time in relationship to other significant people. Instead of the academic questions above, the questions framed in our home are, "Is he managing his time well?" "Does he listen to his siblings when they talk or just barrel over them?" "Is he orderly?" "Does he respect boundaries?" "Does he ask thoughtful questions?" "Is his speech sprinkled liberally with familiar references to God?" "Can he still himself and listen and watch with ears and eyes wide with wonder?" "Does he care?"


I believe that if I can work towards the affirmative in those questions in the early years, the academic success will come. And it will come with social, emotional and spiritual peace. 

Can he read? It matters not just yet. And if he can, well, then, good for him. Let him read--just don't cram stories down his throat with endless required booklists and a hurry-up demeanor.


Sarah library card




Can he wonder? Is he curious? Do we have time to just sit and watch and ponder aloud together? We will read to him, yes, and that sense of story will serve him well when it is time to learn to read. But even more importantly, just now, that world of books will pique his curiosity. He will be motivated to learn. He will care that he can find in books what he wants to know.


I live in the most highly educated corner of the country, according to some studies. The pressure on children to excel academically is real and palpable. From very young ages, some local children are carted from one "opportunity" to the next by intellectually eager parents, all with the primary intention to assure admission to the finest universities. How they will be presented on a college application is buzzing in the minds of children before they even enter grade school. It's all about getting in--even in preschool. It's all about proving oneself smarter and more accomplished. It's all about getting ahead of the other guy, jostling for position, one-upping academically. 

I'm not anti-competition. Ahem. I think we can all agree that my kids compete. And I totally think we should nurture gifts. The real world is full of competition. But I'm adamantly opposed to sacrificing innocence and wonder and childhood joy to the grown-up agenda of beating out the other guy. I'm opposed to sacrificing family life to the building of a child's academic curriculum vitae. A child has an opportunity to be a child just once.  I don't think we should squander childhood by thrusting children into the competitive marketplace too soon.

My friend and college study buddy, Jan, was here last week and we were reminiscing about former students. There was a little boy who was in one of the 3-6 programs mentioned above when he was pre-school age. He was my student. And he was incredibly bright. Brilliant. His parents were academics and it was clear that the priority for his education was to be the smartest. Blessed with abundant natural intelligence, he was very, very, very smart. But he couldn't remember to replace his coat on the hook after time outdoors. He never played with the other children. He rarely would look me in the eye when he spoke. 

He left the 3-6 program to begin official kindergarten in another school. Coincidentally, he was in Jan's first kindergarten class. He was younger than most of the other children and she still remembers that he asked her if they were going to study plate tectonics. His intellectual achievement had so outpaced his social and emotional growth that he was seriously out of balance. Her major goal for him that year was to get him to play without awkwardness and to carry on conversations with his peers. 



There is a healing, a growing, a creating that happens in a child's play and in meaningful work done with his hands alongside a nurturing adult. They can catch up if they fall behind in math. I'm not sure you can ever restore to a child what is lost if they are not allowed the innocence of non-competitive, wholehearted play. If they miss out on plenty of unplanned time in a thoughtful environment. If they are too busy for large quantities of time with adults who love him unconditionally. If no one safeguards freedom within limits to learn about himself first. I'm not sure a child ever recovers from intense academic pressure that can lead them to think that their value is directly correlated to their proven, measurable academic conquests. There is so much more to the education of a child. There is a weaving of the social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual that comes of plenty of time with quality materials, working with their hands, absorbing the good from a nurturing environment. There is a value unmatched in an imagination fed by quiet wonder.

Unhurried childhood is a window of opportunity and it is much, much more valuable and much, much smaller that many people recognize. It's irreplaceable. So we don't skip it.

Gosh, I've gone on for a long time and still not gotten to the nitty gritty. I will, in God's time, no doubt. No rushing;-)

Actually, if you're eager to read more right now, there is this series from five years ago (oh my goodness, how cute was Katie when she was three?!):

It's a wonderful thing!

The Art Box

Language Arts for Little Ones

Number Fun

Leading Little Ones to the Good Shepherd

Practical Life

Oh, and then there is that matter of more than four years worth of books and such for the 3-6 bunch, all organized alphabetically over at Along the Alphabet Path. More suggestions for warm activities and stories at home than anyone would ever need:-)


~~reposted from the archives