Why I don’t teach shapes, colors, letters, or numbers

What do you want most for your kids? To be happy? Successful? Inspired? Fulfilled? When was the last time you felt all of these things? When was the last time you felt invigorated?

The lucky ones among us will recall the glorious days of summer break as kids, when we couldn’t wait to get started on building, reading, moving, inventing, and playing. We would jump out of bed excited to start a new day, reluctantly pause for meals, and then happily resume our work.

Somewhere along the way, many of us lost that spark. Where did it go? Chances are, it got buried somewhere under homework, textbooks, and to-do lists. Somewhere along the way, we were pulled away from our passions and directed toward something else.

Something practical.

Something useful.

Something you have to know in the real world

Something that’s going to be on the test.

Chances are we were pulled away by well-meaning adults in our lives. Our parents. Our teachers. People who cared about us and knew that success in life requires knowledge, skills, and hard work, not just a dream. If we were lucky, we didn’t get pulled away too soon. We had a childhood of playing, exploring, and running around with our friends before a lifetime of responsibilities landed on our shoulders.

This generation of kids needs the same chance to have a childhood. But instead, they are all too often having their childhoods interrupted by academic pressures starting in preschool, if not sooner.

Why not do both?

Why not let kids have a childhood and teach them letters and numbers? If practicing number and letter exercises is a mutually enjoyable activity for you and your child, by all means go for it. Some kids naturally gravitate toward worksheets and to-do lists and check boxes. If you’re got one of these kids, following their interests and providing some explicit instruction can be a wonderful thing. These are the kids who will enjoy doing their taxes when they grow up. (I’m in this category myself. We aren’t fun at parties, but we do get stuff done.)

On the other hand, if you have the kind of kid who runs from worksheets, embrace that too. While some people enjoy learning new things without any apparent real-life use, most people prefer to pick up a skill when they see a useful application on the horizon.

Providing those opportunities for our kids to learn and see the value of new skills is important, but that rarely happens through a worksheet.

What about math?

The need for contextualized learning applies to mathematical literacy in particular. We have a tendency to focus on how soon kids can recite numbers from 1 to 10, recognize numerals, and know their “math facts” and multiplication tables. This type of learning misses the point entirely.

As the late Dr. Hassler Whitney, a distinguished mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University put it, mathematics instruction for the past several decades has largely failed. Learning mathematics should be about “finding one’s way through problems of new sorts.” Unfortunately, this approach has been completely trampled in most schools due to the pressures of standardized testing, which require students to “remember the rules for a certain number of standard exercises at the moment of the test and thus ‘show achievement.’” Dr. Whitney concludes that, “this is the lowest form of leaning, of no use in the outside word.”

”The pressure is now to pass standardized tests. This means simply to remember the rules for a certain number of standard exercises at the moment of the test and thus ‘show achievement.’ This is the lowest form of learning, of no use in the outside world.” -Dr. Hassler Whitney

What about reading?

The book Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn–and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less, written by three highly accomplished child psychologists, notes that high school reading scores can be predicted with a surprising amount of accuracy solely by a child’s knowledge of letters in kindergarten. They point out that findings like this have been used to justify a push for letter instruction in the preschool years and reading instruction during kindergarten despite no solid evidence of long-term gains. Children who read learn to early are not better readers than children who learn to read later. The short-term benefits of learning to read a little earlier fizzle out after a couple of years, and too often come at the expense of long-term socio-emotional development.

How can we help children learn?

Engaging children in our culture of language and literacy is important, but that doesn’t mean drilling letters or memorizing the alphabet. It means talking to kids, listening to them, reading to them, telling them stories, and listening to music. These are all important for their academic and socioemotional wellbeing. As the authors of Einstein Never Used Flashcards put it, “what children need from adults is time, not tricks.”

“What children need from adults is time, not tricks.”

Unfortunately, some parents feel pressured into drilling kids with flashcards for fear that their children will be left behind and unable to succeed otherwise. This tends to be particularly true in families with lower socioeconomic status who are more likely to believe that “helping children with basic letter-related skills, such as memorizing the alphabet, is more important than fostering enjoyment in learning to read.” In fact, studies show that reading for pleasure is “the most explanatory factor of both cognitive progress and social mobility over time.” If you want your kids to get ahead, helping them develop a love of reading is much more important than working on any other reading-related skill.

A new approach

What if we took a new approach with the next generation and stopped turning the building blocks of early learning into a chore? What if we encouraged our kids to follow their passions instead of dragging them away from them? What if we didn’t extinguish their spark? What if we provided the oxygen to let their sparks turn into powerful flames?

How do we accomplish this? The first step is to take a look at some of the common building blocks of early childhood educations: shapes, colors, letters, and numbers. And then zoom out. A little further. Keep going. There. With a wider lens, those old concerns about whether your 2 year old knows her colors or your 4 year old knows his letters look really small. Instead we see that there is a whole world out there to discover alongside our children.

Let’s show them all the world has to offer. Let’s get them excited about the beauty of nature, the vastness of space, the cleverness of new inventions, the possibility of better tax policies, and sound of musical masterpieces. Show them the reasons to put in the hard work.

Let’s inspire reading and writing with stories from great children’s literature. They will learn letters along the way.

Let’s provide space and materials to create art. They will learn colors along the way.

Let’s immerse ourselves in the mathematical beauty of nature and music. They will learn numbers along the way.

Let’s go out into the world and breathe fresh air, help others, and find complex problems to solve. They will show us how to do it along the way. 

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Full disclosure: This article contains an affiliate link for a book. A book purchase through the link will generate a small comission for this website at no cost to you.

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