Preschool education is an interesting concept to say the least. Parents marvel when their 21 month old is already naming colors and the numbers 1 and 2. Often they think, “Well if they are learning that much and that quickly with me at home, then by 3 they should be learning how to read and add numbers.” If the 3 year old preschool then reports they are making crafts, collaborating, and playing, then the parents become afraid the child is not learning, which means they are wasting money and losing an opportunity for their child to learn.
But as parents, we forget what it is like to be a preschooler, and we think of preschool through our adult minds. The reality is preschool children are concrete thinkers (as opposed to reasoners). This begins to change somewhere between 4-7 years old. And whether a child starts using reason at 4 or at 7 does not signify the child is slow, no more than one child hitting puberty at 11 and another at 14. It is just their genetic make up. Concrete thinkers are physiologically very different than reasoners, which is why we must take caution when we evaluate preschools with our adult minds and without research.
Concrete thinking is extremely important, and it makes perfect sense that it would come before reasoning (another proof that God knows what he is doing!). At this stage children are exploring the world, learning to initiate, communicate, and collaborate. The lobes in their brain are malleable. This is important for 2 reasons, it allows them to take in new experiences with completely open minds, and it allows a fluid convergence between the lobes- which is where you find the language center (Wernicke and Broca areas). Visual (occipital), auditory (temporal), conscious thinking (frontal), memory and emotion (limbic) all come together for the brain to form speech. Children in these early stages are physiologically primed to learn about the world and to express themselves through language.
Once children start becoming reasoning thinkers, major adjustments are occurring in their brain structure which will continue through puberty. The lobes become much more structured/solidified. Initially this is great for learning to read, adding, and subtracting. Later, it allows for deep critical and abstract thinking. One example of this is my brother-in-law took Algebra when he was 12. While many girls in his class were achieving high results (more physically developed), he struggled awfully. Yet, he is now studying engineering. His struggles had nothing to do with deficiencies in math, they had everything to do with the fact his brain was still changing and he was not ready to grasp extremely abstract concepts such as Algebra. Another example is my 2 year old calls every quantity either 1 (singular) or two (plural), yet my 5 1/2 year old nephew can add 2+3. The younger knows names for quantities via comparisons (bigger and smaller), but the older sees each number as an individual quantity (two is different than three, because three is one more than two, and five is three more than two…).
My goal in this blog has been to establish, from a biological perspective, that preschoolers are very different physiologically from older children. So as parents and educators, our goal is not to grow them up faster than their brain will allow, our goal must be, train them appropriately for what their brain is ready to process. (Now don’t misunderstand me, concrete thinkers and can think critically, but it should be in the said areas, and a joyful experience, not stressful. For example, I can ask my 2 year old to go stand on the picture of the item that starts a car. He will then look at 5 different pictures on our floor and then go stand on a picture of car keys).
What are preschools ready to process? They are ready to process the world through exploration. They are ready to process relationships through interaction. They are ready to process emotions through self control. They are become aware of themselves through initiation, creation, and reflection. And most, most, most importantly, they are learning how to express themselves through language. And they are ready to do all of this in an enjoyable play-based environment (not strapped to desks!). Leave classes like Algebra to reasoning thinkers who are well into puberty, but focus on language with concrete thinkers. They are language geniuses. Concrete thinkers have the ability to listen, learn, and imitate language which reasoners are unable to do (after 7 years old, we have lost our opportunity to acquire language at the native level).
So as you look for a preschool… If you are looking for a junior league Harvard, you run a great risk of stressing your child and destroying their desire to learn. You should be looking for a place where children initiate, explore, collaborate, create, and communicate. It should be play-based, yet with structure and routines. Your child should love preschool, and should also be loved at preschool. It should be a caring/ nurturing environment. And it is here that I speak to the overachieving parent- if you want to make the most of their cognitive abilities, don’t look for more reading and math, looking for opportunities to develop LANGUAGE. Give your child the gift of learning more than one language. If you wait for middle school it is too late. If you provide a video or Spanish class here and there, it is too little. If you place them in a language immersion environment, it is perfect.