A Balancing Act

In which our reluctant hero learns something new.

They say that you learn something new each day. It’s true that. Take this morning for example where I, and three fellow commuters, learned not to assume that a BMW driver, who was not indicating, wouldn’t be turning right as we fled for safety like proverbial bunnies in the headlights while attempting to cross the road to the station.

As parents, we instinctively try to help our little people learn and develop new skills. In the early days this may involve encouraging those first attempts at a smile, gripping and shaking a rattle or simply knocking things over. In a way, this stage is probably the easiest as if your child is having fun doing an activity, pretty much any activity, then they are learning.

In hindsight this is a rewarding period as a parent. Knowing that playing with something as simple as a cardboard box will provide hours of giggles and they’ll think that you’re the world’s best Dad as a result is brilliant. Make the most of it. It won’t last.

Different skills become essential to independence as children get older, such as using a spoon, walking, talking and being able to charge a flat tablet back up.

Then there’s the more “academic” stuff, like learning to count and recognise numbers. When our eldest was little, each time we walked up or downstairs we would count each step until, eventually, she could recite the pattern like a performing monkey. Which, of course, we made her do countless times, especially in front of parents with children slightly older. (And don’t tell me that you didn’t do this too, parents of two year olds…) Oddly, our youngest seems to have taught himself the same skill with little help from ourselves AND remembers to include the number eight more often than not.

There seems to be conflicting messages around learning though. There’s the school of thought that children do things in their own time and we should just let them get on with it. Which is probably true, to a degree. Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.

But, by the time that they start at school nursery at three there’s an expectation that children can use the toilet, know about food and eating well, can hold a pencil properly and attempt to write their name, and so on. Yet we are often told that if we do too much at home there will be nothing for the children to learn at school and they’ll get bored. What’s the balance? It seems that you can’t win.

Although primarily focussed on an older age group, there was an interesting article on the BBC website this week which discussed whether homework was worth the hassle. In it, a Texan teacher proposed “I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your children to bed early.” as an alternative approach to extra curricular learning.

Now, I have no idea if this is a sensible approach to adopt with an eleven year old or not, but it seems pretty sound advice for when the children are little.

So, in the first three years, is it better to focus on the things that children are not going to learn at nursery or school later? Do things together and play lots?

If we take the academic element away, that presumably leaves more of a focus on the creative side. Albert Einstein once said that “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” and, being a bit of a clever clogs himself, he could well be right.

So, maybe it is time to chuck the “Differential Calculus for Infants” book in the bin and fetch out the Lego, books, Play Doh and dressing up things instead. And don’t worry. You can always sneak some sums, telling the time, spelling and Spanish lessons in with a few careful telly choices.

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