They say the early bird catches the worm. The idea seems obvious: the sooner you start, the more you learn. But can toddlers actually benefit from early instruction?
Curious, I visited the the early childhood educators at West Side Family Place, a local family resource centre located in Kitsilano, to find out whether my two-year-old was only a deck of flash cards and a number chart away from becoming Albert Einstein.
“Parents prioritize academics, even in toddlers”, say coordinator Eva Svensson. She added that parents often “assume early instruction will give their kids an edge”. Adults often believe children learn more from teachers in formal settings like a classroom, not playing on their own or with their friends. In fact, the spontaneous or undirected learning that happens with play is more fundamental because it enables children to learn from teachers in the first place.
Family Place facilitator Sue Ellen Elman elaborates, “playtime is an opportunity for children to test their thoughts and theories. . . it’s really about their process, not their product”. Play encourages “fine motor skills, but also critical thinking, problem solving, socialization, creativity and curiosity.” However, early instruction may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even souring kids’ desire to learn.
“During play children learn about the world and their place within it.” Eva explains. “Family Place provides a safe place for children and caregivers to play and socialize. . . this is ideal because children learn best when they’re truly comfortable in their environment”. The facilitators encourage various types of play using different mediums including, art, song, and role play. This variety allows children not only develop important skills, but genuine interests.
An increasing number of education researchers and teachers agree play, not early instruction, will lead to better long term outcomes. Two recent studies, conducted separately at MIT and UC Berkeley, reached the same conclusion: instruction causes children to see teachers as a source of information. Further, when taught, young children focus only on the specific information provided by the teacher. But when they are left to explore on their own, children look for a much wider range of information and consider a greater range of options.
Of course, knowing what to expect from a teacher is not a bad thing. You get to the right answers more quickly than you would otherwise. But there is an intrinsic trade-off between that kind of learning and the more wide-ranging learning that is so natural for young children. Knowing this, it’s more important than ever to give children’s remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free rein. West Side Family Place and other play drop-in centres provide a rich, stable, and safe environment where kids, alongside supportive grown-ups, can explore their world.