Small steps to learning; how does a child learn to write?

Valerie Strauss writes an education news piece called The Answer Sheet for the Washington Post. While her posts are “all things educational,” it is interesting when she turns her attention to the state of affairs in early childhood education—“Tutors for 3-year olds and More Preschool Nuttiness” leads the blog post! Why is it so easy to put the words “nuttiness” and “preschool” together? Read it now! It gets nuttier tomorrow! We learn that anxious parents are asking school directors to teach 2-year olds to copy and learn the alphabet, to not identify their children for special services. Frantic parents are looking for advanced educational placements for their children and over stimulating them with activities and materials.

Having worked with parents of young children for over a decade and having kids myself, I can say from professional and personal experience that parenting can be joyous, but it also brings with it Big Scary Pressure. It does not take a great deal of outside influence and information to make a parent of a young child nutty by having to manage and balance the challenges and infinite possibilities presented in a child’s early years.

The idea that “No Child Left Behind” has trickled down into the preschool years is plain to see in many settings, but someone has to turn off the faucet. Community leaders, parents, and teacher organizations should advocate for early childhood certified educators to teach children ages 3 through 8. Early childhood certification includes coursework in human growth and development. An early childhood educator must understand how learning is acquired and the many ways that knowledge can be expressed. Elementary education certification does not require coursework that is specific to the development and acquisition of language, literacy, math, and science. Public schools may be hard-pressed to hire educators only certified to teach early childhood when certification in elementary education (K-5 or K-8) offers so much more flexibility in terms of human resources.

Alternatively, private schools may be able to “sell” their programs more effectively, but as educators, we are all charged with helping parents and children make their way to “joy of learning.”

So let’s lighten up on the parents a minute. And let’s shake up the problems presented in the post—child development experts know “that youngsters best learn the fundamentals of literacy through well-designed play. But lots of parents don’t understand that.” Who would understand that? What does that mean, really? Trust me, I have been guilty of casually and liberally tossing around educational jargon myself. That said, I think it is time to back up and think about this from a different angle.

One missing ingredient here is that early childhood educators cannot drop phrases like “learning through play,” “hands-on learning,” and “play is a child’s work” and expect these to get us anywhere near the place these worried, and yes, well-meaning parents have found themselves. We need to be able to effectively describe how human beings develop and grow, cognitively and physically, how information is taken in, how it is organized and then how it is expressed in ideas and how it provides the child entrée to the world.

Here is how a human learns to write the alphabet…she grasps a rattle to put in her mouth at 4-months (and misses her mouth most of the time) and she crawls at 9 months (but mostly scoots backward on all fours). She begins to learn language—she learns that the sound “chair” means that thing she sits in when she squishes and puddles up food around her plate.

She slowly begins to run with control and speed, she climbs and jumps on both feet, she pushes a doorbell (over and over again), she rolls in the leaves, she pumps her legs up and down on the swing. She learns to ride a tricycle. She learns that “red” means, “stop.” That is just the beginning and there is more to be done! At 2-years old, a human child does not have the articulation of muscles and bone in the hand, the trunk strength, and the left to right coordination to use a pencil with purpose. Back to the playground—wheelbarrow walks, more climbing, raking, shoveling, and stomping in puddles. We go inside to work with clay, play dough, shaving cream, and sort tiny, tiny buttons.

Using educational jargon, I would call that the acquisition of fine motor skills. It is not a mistake that most of the activities described above use large muscle sets. That is because learning to read and write begins with the perfecting, strengthening, and increasing the stamina of large muscle sets. Without these, a child has not gathered enough information from his world to feed brain development and to gain the control and coordination of tiny, tiny muscle sets that are required to write out letters.

Parents are worried. They need information and understanding from experts in early childhood. Educators need more practice and patience in expressing the true nature of brain and body development and acquisition of knowledge. We need practice in helping parents connect the complicated dots that will lead to what any parent wants, future happiness, health, and success for their children.