For several months now, I’ve been posting pictures to a Facebook album called Tot School, showing some of the learning activities I do with the kids. The reason for the album is to put ideas out there for any other parents of young kids who like to do fun pre-preschool stuff too. I was nervous about this right from the beginning, though, as it has the potential to look like showing off. Kind of gives off the vibe, “I not only having my 2-year-old painting triangles – I made the paint myself out of MILK! What do YOU do?” My fears were revived when one of my friends approached me the other day and said good-naturedly, “I saw your facebook album, and I thought, ‘I am a terrible mother!’” Even though she was joking, I felt the time was ripe to explain why and how we do tot school.
There are four main reasons why I tot school my kids. (And just to clear up any ambiguity, I didn’t create the phrase “tot school”; it’s in use on a number of blogs that are aimed at early childhood education. It seems to focus primarily on ages 1-3, and there are even a good number of such activities aimed at babies.)
1. It’s fun for me. Everyone needs a hobby, and mine is tot school. I get the same kick out of creating a sensory bin or a theme-related gross motor exercise as many people do out of sewing, scrapbooking, or hiking. I love to unwind after a hard day by staging a date with my laminator. Yes, I own a laminator.
2. It’s fun for my kids. Rose absolutely loves tot school and usually requests to “do some school” several times a day. For a really active, rowdy kid (like Everett is turning out to be), our activities would look a lot different and a lot less “schoolish”. But with open-mindedness the right sort of planning to address each personality and learning style, I think a version of tot school can be fun for just about any kid.
3. It’s a bonding experience. Like most kids her age, Rose likes to learn, but I think even more important to her motivation is that school is a little piece of the day when I focus entirely on her and we get to enjoy doing stuff (basically playing) together. This is a big part of what I love about it as well. For us, tot school fills that need for mother-daughter time and shared experiences.
4. It is one way of helping my kids grow healthy brains and prepare them for lifelong learning. I do think there is some benefit to the activities we do. Most importantly, I think it shows my kids how much fun learning can be and ignites an excitement for reading and exploring their world, which will hopefully serve them well later, both in school and in general life.
Note that I said this is “one way” of preparing my kids for school and life. I certainly don’t think it is the only way, nor do I think you are setting your child up for academic failure if you don’t do tot school per se. I excelled in school despite the fact that my own mom never heard of or attempted to implement tot school. This is not to say that my mom didn’t prepare me for formal learning, though. She certainly did, through informal teaching and mostly just through using everyday situations as opportunities to discuss and learn.
I do think it is important to help your young child develop a healthy mind, but I don’t think there is any one method for doing this. Parents who engage with their children and enjoy doing things and going places together as a family will naturally do what is necessary to help their children learn. God created children to explore and inquire, to challenge themselves, and to develop healthy minds. Given a safe, loving and stimulating environment with an active caregiver, and barring the interference of any learning disabilities, they will do so without any fancy activities or equipment.
So if you see pins for creative and artsy preschool activities and feel a sense of guilt that those kind of things don’t appeal to you, or if they do appeal to you on the surface but actually spending the time to do them dampens your enthusiasm, stop right there. You are not doing anything wrong, even by foregoing tot school entirely. I’m not an expert on early education, but I got some training in it and have learned a lot in my own self-directed learning since then. From my perspective, this is what you should focus on doing for the first 3-5 years of your child’s life, whether or not you tot school:
1. Interact. Talk with your kid, do everyday stuff together, enjoy experiences together. Your kid will learn best from the things that happen in the course of life by simply talking to you and watching you. Keep your screen time to a minimum during your children’s waking hours; those are your hours to engage their minds simply by being mentally and emotionally available to them. Be watchful for teachable moments.
2. Teach practical life skills. Keep your eyes open for the sorts of things your child might be ready to tackle next: self-dressing, cleaning up toys after play, drinking from a big kid cup, helping you bake, using good manners, folding dish cloths. These things are hugely foundational for the kind of ordered thinking and self-discipline needed for later school success. It takes an initial time investment to teach these things, but then having your kid be a little more self-sufficient frees up some of your time too. (I just want to confess here, I haven’t done well at this with Rose. Now we are starting to back up some from schoolish stuff and do more of these kinds of skills because I see how important they are.)
3. Love your kid. No matter how cognitively advanced your kid may or may not be, their success in school is tremendously dependent on their emotional health and the strength of their family bonds. Meet their physical needs, spend time bonding one-on-one with each child doing the things they like best, show them that you are always there for them, help them build a healthy self-image and respect for others, teach them about God’s love in meaningful ways, plan fun family times, and prioritize the health of your marriage.
If you do these things, I really think you can’t go wrong. Living in Africa has reminded me that even in families where the parents have little formal education themselves and don’t purposefully set out to prepare their children academically for school from an early age, children can succeed because they have healthy families and healthy childhoods. In the situations where they have been adequately nourished and raised in a secure environment, by the time they start school they have spent six years exploring, observing, and imitating. They enter school with the best piece of educational equipment: a healthy mind, ready for formal learning.
The time you could spend tot-schooling could just as profitably be spent investing extra energy in these essential things.
And for those of you who do get as excited as I do about threading beads onto pipe cleaners, freezing toys inside blocks of ice, or making bath paint from shaving foam – stay tuned! The next few blog posts will be for you. I’ll be sharing some of my favorite sources and our own ever-changing method of doing tot school.