(cross posted at My168Hours)
My 3-year-old, Jasper, attends a full-day preschool program. From my observations, preschool seems to have experienced an academic upgrade since my days of hanging out in my church in Raleigh, NC eating graham crackers. When I started kindergarten, our first set of reading words included "cat," "dog," and "fish." I thought of "fish" as a rather difficult word to foist on the 5-year-old set, given that it had 4 letters. My son, on the other hand, learned all his letters and numbers by age 3. Not because I was teaching them. Because his daycare was teaching them. Now that he is officially in the preschool class, they are tracing letters (a rather humorous thing to watch a 3-year-old boy attempt, by the way). Part of me thinks this is a bit much for people who have just learned to go to the potty by themselves. But the interesting thing to me is that my son loves it. Indeed, the other day, he was very excited to show me his "words." This was a sheet of paper with eight short words ("up" "to" "I" et al) in boxes that we could cut up to make flash cards.
Yes, flash cards.
Now, flash cards are a flash point, if you will, in the whole education/parenting debate that consumes a lot of modern mindshare. They've become a symbol of the excesses of our culture of standardized tests, pushy parenting, etc. Indeed, a book came out a few years ago called Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. I don't know if he did or didn't, but here's the charge: Flash cards present one fact or thing, divorced from any context, and usually involve drilling -- pushing a concept into the brain's temporary memory, to be regurgitated when required, then forgotten. This is not a great way to learn.
But my 3-year-old doesn't come to learning with any of this baggage. To him, words are an exciting thing. Grown-ups can read them, and he wants to see what the grown-ups can see. Plus, we got to use scissors to cut the flash cards out, and that was exciting in its own right. So I tried to respond to the flash cards in the same spirit. We had fun making them. Then after he read me all the words on the cards, we made some other flash cards with different words so we could make real sentences. "School," and "playground" and "the" got added to the mix. We tried moving them around on our coffee table so we could read phrases Jasper might say like "I go to school" or "we go to the playground." He squealed when he realized that the words he'd read formed an actual thought. And then when we tired of this, as one does quickly at age 3, we had fun piling the flash cards into another toy and carting them around the house.
I have been realizing, as I think about how I spend my time with my kids, that there is a lesson here. The best contribution I can make to their education is not to make sure their homework is all done right, or to introduce new and advanced topics, or to work with them to get them to read early, or what have you. It is to make sure that they continue to find learning enjoyable. It is exciting to work hard to understand something new about the world. I want them to want to learn for its own sake. For now we seem to be doing OK with this. The other day, when I couldn't identify a certain dinosaur species, Jasper thought about this problem for a minute, then went and found his dinosaur encyclopedia so we could look it up. We never did find the right dinosaur name, but we learned all sorts of other interesting things in the process, so that was good too. We shall see how this pans out as the years go by and he can't just explore what piques his interest, but I figure it's worth a shot.