Many preschool and day
care programs claim to be “academic,” teach- trig very young
children to count, recite the alphabet, and learn various concepts.
Such emphasis on educational activities is part of a larger,
society-wide push to have children learn more, faster. Publishers
put out educational books and software; toy companies manufacture
educational games; television shows teach the alphabet and numbers.
Because of pressure from friends, neighbors, some child development
professionals, and the media, many parents feel concerned if their
two-, three- or four-year-old hasn’t yet learned shapes, colors,
letters, and numbers.
It’s possible to teach a young child to memorize and then recite
back almost any short list, including the numbers from one to ten
and the alphabet. But comprehension of such concepts doesn’t usually
begin until she’s four to six years old. A three-year-old may know
that saying “1, 2, 3, 4,” is called counting, but she probably won’t
understand that the number 6 represents six objects. To her,
learning the alphabet is like learning to recite in a foreign
language without knowing the meaning of the words.
A child can’t be taught to understand concepts before she is ready.
Gradually, as she experiments with objects, questions her parents
and other people, observes her environment, and explores, she’ll
learn what words and numbers mean. If her natural curiosity is
encouraged and she has materials to experiment with, she’ll learn
But too much emphasis on early education may discourage her and
diminish her natural drive to learn. Parents should wait until their
child shows a spontaneous interest in letters, words, and concepts,
and then follow up on what she can do.
There’s no need for schools and parents to provide excessive amounts
of educational materials for young children. Colors, shapes,
numbers, and words are part of whatever children do, so they learn
about these things naturally. Every day, a child hears, “Put on your
blue shorts,” “Do you want the red or the green crayon?” “Here are
three crackers,” “Look at that big truck.” She has constant exposure
to such concepts as same and different (milk is different than
juice, Mom is different than Dad), soft and hard, big and little.
She hears adults counting, sees them reading, and observes letters
and numbers everywhere. She gets a natural jump on literacy when her
parents read to her daily, patiently repeating her favorite stories.
You will gradually hear your child ask, “How many is this?” “What
color is this?” “What does this say?” She’ll begin to count out
loud, at first getting the numbers out of order, and she’ll write
letters on paper, often creating nonsense words or writing her name
backwards. Try not to correct her, but rather encourage her to keep
counting and keep writing. She’ll learn at her own pace—without
pressure—because she’s interested and self-motivated. Then, starting
with kindergarten and first grade, you’ll see her make great strides
in literacy and math.