First, I feel I should point out that I have done no real research on the topic of learning capabilities in small children, nor have I read any research done by others. What I know I’ve learned from my own daughter, and to a lesser extent my niece and the children we see at playgroup.
With that aside, what I know is that we as a society have a bad habit of underestimating small children. We follow guidelines that tell us what skills our kids should know and by when, we buy age-specific toys based on assessments made by the companies who designed them, and we get upset if our kids haven’t learned a specific skill by a specific time, even if they’ve become quite advanced in a different skill in the meantime.
In other words, we group all children together, expecting them to learn and grow at the same rate, and limiting them by focusing on only the skills we’re told they should have by now. I personally think this is very silly because, while you shouldn’t push your children to “learn learn learn learn learn!!!” you should always encourage them to go further and further.
I’ll give you an example. My daughter has a wooden alphabet puzzle. The back of the puzzle board states that the puzzle is for ages 3 and up. At the time we purchased the puzzle I thought that “ages 3 and up” couldn’t possibly refer to any kind of safety issue because the puzzle pieces are quite large, and a quick examination showed that there is no way the pegs could possibly become disconnected. When the safety check was all clear we gave our daughter the puzzle to play with…at the time she was just under a year old. Yes, we gave our one year old a toy that someone, somewhere, decided was meant for three year olds and up. We weren’t pushing the learning toy on her, and we certainly didn’t expect giving it to her to make her a genius or anything; we just figured it was a good, educational toy that she’d enjoy playing with. But here’s the thing…she caught on pretty fast. It only took her a few weeks to be able to locate where the pieces went, and by the time she was just under a year and a half old we had her telling us what all the letters were as she was doing the puzzle. It didn’t take long after that for her to understand that letters naturally went in a particular order, and if I wrote down letters she’d tell me which ones came next.
There were other factors that contributed to her success, of course… For one thing we took the time to sit with her and tell her what all the letters were. For another she also regularly watched a Sesame Street special that teaches kids the alphabet. But the point of the story is that if we had set the puzzle aside, assuming that she wouldn’t be able to understand it until she was at least three years old, she might not have caught on to the alphabet so soon. If we took it upon ourselves to assume that the Sesame Street special was too advanced for her, she wouldn’t be THIS close to being able to sing the whole alphabet song at less than two and a half years old (imagine me holding my fingers a few millimeters apart).
Again, I’m not saying my kid is a genius, but I can absolutely say with certainty that she has advanced faster than expected because we don’t hold back teaching her new things just because she’s still young. We make sure her toys are safe, and if we buy her something meant for older kids (Ninja Turtles action figures and My Little Pony sets come to mind) we make sure to remove any small pieces she might decide to swallow for fun. Once those two things have been accomplished, we let her play with what she’s interested in, and we encourage her to learn new things. In fact, she and her soon-to-be-four-year-old cousin can work my Samsung Galaxy Tab2 better than some adults I know.
Kids are sponges, they really are. We regularly take this into consideration when taking care not to transfer bad habits, but we rarely think about it when considering teaching and learning practices. Encourage your kid to learn, and (as long as safety permits) let them decide what toys and programs are appropriate for their age group. They’ll thank you for it later.