Considering that they’re programmed to learn, why are we surprised when children do what comes naturally? Why do we consistently think it’s beyond their ability to pick up certain concepts, skills, and practices? I think part of the problem is that our current educational model wrongly assumes babies and young children have limited learning capacities. We worry far more about overwhelming our kids and wasting time teaching them things they won’t remember than we do about stimulating their brains to meet challenges. We let our fear that they might fail stop us from giving them a chance to succeed, and also to learn from failures without getting discouraged.
Let’s face it: we grown-ups are always judging and comparing our successes and failures. It’s definitely important for us to discern and evaluate our actions and behaviors. But judgments aren’t necessarily transferrable to babies and young children in the way we expect. While we want them to be safe, we don’t want to teach them to fear failure, because that can stop them from trying. If we don’t believe they’re capable, they won’t either. If we’re afraid of failing, they are likely to be as well.
Adults have a natural instinct to protect children. Perhaps that’s why we often shy away from putting them into situations that might be too difficult or intense. That impulse is a healthy one, but it’s important for us to distinguish our personal fears from legitimate concerns for a child’s well-being. Yes, protect your toddler from too much sun exposure. But no, don’t fret over too much learning exposure. Overprotectiveness can misdirect us to setting the bar too low.
When I launched the first Little Newtons childcare center and preschool, I was really only trying to address a gap in my community and in my own life. I wanted a rigorous learning experience for my first child. All the programs I had looked at seemed to consider the education of their charges a distant priority, far below keeping them fed, clean, and actively or passively engaged and entertained.
It wasn’t that I thought those things weren’t priorities. They most certainly are! But if I was going to pay to leave my daughter somewhere for five or six hours a day, I thought she should get more out of it than just having her basic needs met. I wasn’t looking for a place just to park her to fill the time until I returned from work.
I had a sense of time slipping away, too—possibly more so than parents usually feel when they first send their children to preschool or day care. From my own medical background, I knew that the first years of life are critical in terms of early brain development, and I wanted to capitalize on that narrow window of time. I hoped to build a solid foundation for the rest of my daughter’s education. It didn’t make sense to me to wait for kindergarten or first grade for her to start learning in a significant way—not when I knew she could be strengthening those learning muscles right now, with her brain at its peak capacity.
All parents want the best for their kids. I was no different regarding my daughter. I soon realized other children could also benefit from my educational approach. In my mind, there was no downside to presenting knowledge in an organized, consistent, and unpressured way. Conventional wisdom holds that kids younger than five can’t understand these lessons. But where was the harm in trying? As long as they were stimulated and having fun, the exposure couldn’t hurt. From my studies, my parenting experience, and my gut instincts, I was sure my methods had educational value.