As a mother of very bright and possibly gifted children, I have worked hard at finding out just how to help them develop their potential. I have come to realize that pushing early academics is not only pointless, but really doesn’t fully address all aspects of early child development. There is a whole lifetime to learn, it doesn’t all have to be done when you are little. There is much more development that happens in early childhood besides just the academic ones.
In a well written article by professional educator David Elkind, Ph.D. titled Much Too Early, we see the importance of not pushing a child academically too young.
It is during the early years, ages four to seven, when children’s basic attitudes toward themselves as students and toward learning and school are established. Children who come through this period feeling good about themselves, who enjoy learning and who like school, will have a lasting appetite for the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Children whose academic self-esteem is all but destroyed during these formative years, who develop an antipathy toward learning, and a dislike of school, will never fully realize their latent abilities and talents.
There is so much more to learning in the early years than strict academics. Between the ages of 2 and 6, working on fine motor skills is equally important, because children should have strength and dexterity in their hands and fingers before being asked to manipulate a pencil on paper. These days it is becoming more commonplace for children to have writing difficulties and an inappropriate pencil grasp because young children are engaged in writing experiences before their hands are ready. This leads to frustration on both the parts of the parents and children.
Often, I’ve seen on mothering message boards where the very young child wishes to express him or herself via art or writing, yet their hands won’t cooperate. Can you imagine how frustrating that would be?
I have collected three excellent websites to get ideas for building strength and dexterity through manipulatives and fine motor skill development.
Many younger students are presenting with immaturity of hand use. With practice and use of suggested exercises, children can develop greater skill. The students we see in occupational therapy generally have layers of neuroimmaturity to include visual-spatial disorganization, immature hand use along with low muscle tone. After a few months of practice they just aren’t improving. It is appropriate to call in an Occupational Therapist to make an observation, to see if an evaluation is necessary. We always want to try and provide the simplest support first, to see if practice and maturity can impact fine motor skills
Early childhood is NOT just about developing academically. For example, art for young children – like painting, drawing, scissor skills-develop the fine motor skills. It’s not at all about the end result, it is however, developing all those muscles in your arm, hands and fingers that helps the ability to eventually write.
In addition, there is a really interesting progression from scribbles to pictures that takes place in early childhood. The cognitive advances that are made during this process where the child realizes that pictures can serve as symbols. It takes planning skills and spatial understanding and this is developed through art. [Berk, Laura. Development Through the Lifespan, 3rd ed]
This is no small potatoes here. Drawing and other forms of art develops those cognitive skills as well as helping build dexterity in the hands and fingers.
Take for instance, the drawing of people. First there are faces: a circle for a head, a smile, and two eyes. Then the next progression is the head on two long lines to indicate a body [the universal "tadpole" image , then the tadpole becomes the anchor for more complex drawing, arms, legs, fingers [Berk, Laura. Development Through the Lifespan, 3rd ed]. I have watched the progression from all my kids drawings. It’s been pretty amazing. My middle daughter’s pictures always include eyelashes. That’s how much detail she likes to give her pictures.
Now, with her, her academic development is higher than my oldest daughter’s was at that age, yet, her fine motor skills aren’t as developed. While she has a lot of detail, you can see that there is shakiness to her drawing and writing of letters. My oldest daughter’s artwork had developed a lot faster and earlier. Now her handwriting is one of the best in her first grade class. And while she is very bright, her younger sister had learned how to read a full year earlier, and she’s not even in kindergarten yet.
Maria Montessori had specifically designed activities to work on fine motor skills, because she knew that was equally important as academics. That is the reason I have looked to have lots of fine motor activities and toys. You can see many of them above under the Early Enrichment Activities and Montessori inspired tabs at the top of my blog. Legos and Playmobil and Tinkertoys and other building sets offer lots of fine motor play. And if you have girls, don’t forget that they can be equally interested in the sets designed for boys. We have pirate Playmobil, and we have the blue box of legos where you can make a car, and a helicopter, and it comes with a little mechanic, not the pink box with the house and flowers. My girls loved it so much, when I went to the Lego store not too long ago, I picked up more mechanic lego men with more tools.
And of course, there is the many cognitive benefits of imaginative play, not just academic lessons.
Sure, academic success is MEASURABLE, but what about all those character traits that are not?
Like executive function skills – allows one to attend to tasks without distraction
Like creativity – allows one to take what one has learned and make novel connections between information. Allows one to “think outside the box” and come up with creative solutions.