Today’s children sit more than ever. Babies spend countless hours confined in car seats and carriers rather than crawling, toddling, or being carried. As they get older, their days are often heavily scheduled between educational activities and organized events. Most children today have 25 percent less time for free play than they did a generation ago, and that’s before factoring in distractions like TV or video games.
Left to their own devices, children move. They hold hands and whirl in a circle until they fall down laughing. They climb, dig, and run. They beg to take part in interesting tasks with adults. They snuggle. Stifling these full body needs actually impairs their ability to learn.
We know that our little ones walk and talk on their own timetables. No rewards or punishments are necessary to “teach” them. Yet children are expected to read, write, and spell starting at five and six years old as if they develop the same way at the same time. In fact, academics are pushed on preschoolers with the assumption that this will make them better students. This approach is not only unnecessary, but may be contributing to problems such as “learning disorders” and “attention deficits.”
Literacy isn’t easy. It requires children to decode shapes (the alphabet) into sounds and words, to remember these words correctly in written and spoken form, and to understand their meaning. Allowing reading to develop naturally or teaching it later tends to create eager, lifelong readers. In contrast, teaching children to read early, between four and seven years, is often stressful. Why?
Children pushed to read young tend to rely on right brain processes because that area matures more quickly. These early readers are likely to guess at unknown words using clues such as appearance, context, and beginning and ending letters. Their main tactic is memorizing sight words. These are valuable methods but are not a balanced approach to reading. Such children may quickly tire after reading short passages or read smoothly but have difficulty deriving meaning from what they read. The procedure they use to decode words can make the content hard to comprehend. These reading problems can persist.
However, children benefit when they learn to read naturally or are taught later. As the left brain matures and the pathway between both hemispheres develops, it becomes easier for them to sound out words, visualize meanings, and mentally tinker with abstractions. They memorize short sight words but sound out longer words, a less taxing approach. As they incorporate more words into their reading vocabulary, they more easily picture and understand what they are reading.
In order for children to read, write, and spell, they must be developmentally ready. Some are ready at the age of four or five, while others are not ready for many more years. This readiness includes complex neurological pathways and kinesthetic awareness. Such readiness isn’t created by workbooks or computer programs; it is the result of brain maturation as well as rich experiences found in bodily sensation and movement.
These experiences happen as children play and work. This includes expansive movements such as climbing, jumping, digging, swimming, playing hopscotch and catch, riding bikes, sweeping, and running. It also includes fine movements such as chopping vegetables, drawing, building, using scissors, and playing in sand.
And it includes the essential growth that comes from snuggling, listening to stories, singing, trying new tastes, playing rhyming and clapping games, and enjoying make believe. Children are drawn to such experiences. Without them, they won’t have a strong foundation for learning.
These activities stimulate the child’s brain to develop new neural pathways. Such activities also build confidence, smooth sensory processing, and create a bank of direct experience that helps the child visualize abstract concepts. Well-intended adults may think a good use of a rainy afternoon is a long car ride to an educational exhibit. A young child is likely to derive more developmental value (and fun) from stomping in puddles and digging in mud followed by play time in the tub.
There are many other factors contributing to reading readiness. Perhaps most important is a supportive family life where reading and conversation are an enjoyable part of each day. But it helps to remember that young children want to participate in the purposeful work of making meals, fixing what’s broken, and planting the garden. They also need free time without the built-in entertainment of specialized toys, television, or video games so they can explore, pretend, and play games. These direct experiences prepare children for the magic found when shapes become words, words become stories, and they become readers.
Laura Grace Weldon lives on Bit of Earth Farm with her family. She’s the author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. Connect with her at www.lauragraceweldon.com.
This article has been edited from a previous version published at LifeLearningMagazine.com, May/June 2010.