Pre-School Prep: The Inside Scoop

Hi Readers!  This wisdom for pre-school parents comes to us from Jen Singer, who is NOT just a personal friend, NOT just the blogger behind, NOT just the gal who penned, You’re A Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren’t So Bad Either), but is ALSO the author of the brand-new Stop Second Guessing Yourself –The Preschool Years. That book inspired this post:


by Jen Singer

Wait a minute: Are those flashcards in that mom’s hands? At a baseball game? Yes. Yes, they are. She’s holding them up to test her preschooler on her letters and numbers – on a Friday night at Little League.

Meanwhile, your kids are playing under the bleachers. Something about a princess and a fire truck and magical cookies…you have no idea what they’re saying. All you know for sure is that your kids are having fun, while the little girl with the flashcards is working on mom-imposed homework and a nervous breakdown before she’s 12.

And yet you resist the culture pushing homework and studying for younger and younger children because you believe that kids learn through play — something your mom’s generation seemed to take for granted, while yours acts like it’s nothing short of heresy. Preschool, it seems, has become what first grade used to be – all about the three R’s: Readin’, Ritin’ and an awful lot of Responsibility for a bunch of four-year-olds.

Now, however, it appears that a fourth R has brought some common sense into today’s parents: Recession. All of a sudden it’s okay to put off the expensive piano lessons for kids who aren’t even old enough to read and to skip the personal soccer goalie trainer altogether. It’s okay if you let the kids just play instead of gearing them up for Yale right now. Isn’t it?

Frankly, you don’t care. Your Free-Range Kids are happy, healthy and plenty ready for preschool. How do you know? Because even though they can’t conjugate French verbs (well, not many, anyway), they know the four most important things they need to succeed in preschool:

  1. They can put on their own coats. (Ever watch a preschool teacher help 22 kids put on coats at recess? By the time she’s done, it’s spring.)
  2. They know how to share. (Not everything, every time, but they get the concept.)
  3. They can use the potty.
  4. They can sit (reasonably) still.

That’s it. That is the basis of what they need for preschool. Everything else, you suspect, they’ll learn thanks to a princess, a fire truck and some magical cookies…or whatever. They’ll learn through play, just like you did long before there were ever flashcards at a baseball game on a Friday night.


61 Responses

  1. Damn right. I don’t actually send my preschool age son to preschool, but I can’t imagine him in an environment where that sort of academic prep was expected. He is three. He plays.

    There is a preschool (maybe even daycare?) that I drive past sometimes. They take very young children. They have slogans on their signs that make me so mad I can hardly see straight. The most recent one? “If you child went here, they’d be a full grade level ahead!” First of all, your slogan has incorrect grammar, so I doubt it. Second of all, why is that desirable for EIGHTEEN MONTH OLDS?

  2. since most shoos are either crocs or with Velcro, I think shoes below on the list as well (falls into the coat category, it will not just be spring, but Christmas)

    Otherwise I could not agree more, kids learns best from kids. My son is the living proof

    My oldest is 4 years old, for the last 2 I try on a regular basis to promote veggies as something that can be eaten…, with medium to zero success (I am still a wonderful and responsible mom)
    This summer we were visiting the grandparents, and my son was playing with the girl next door (same age as him), she came in for dinner and ate cucumbers. Since that fateful evening my son wants cucumbers every evening.

  3. Ha – I laughed when I read ” They can put on their own coats. (Ever watch a preschool teacher help 22 kids put on coats at recess? By the time she’s done, it’s spring.) ” I taught toddlers for 2 years in a preschool and they could ALL put on their own coats by the end of the first few weeks!

    I’m so glad I worked at a preschool that was child centered and play based. I’m always appalled by “acedemics” in pre school. All of our kids left pre school knowing how to write their names, name all their colors and numbers, and some even reading – all without ever seeing a worksheet.

  4. The amazing thing is these flashcard carrying parents. I have seen them myself. Both of my boys have special needs. Every therapy they have, even speech and feeding therapy, is play based. Every single one is all about bringing the lessons into the games they want to play. They have so much research that proves children learn these types of things so much better through play based situations that it’s a waste of time to even deal with the formal, sitting at a table, chairs straight, looking at cards programs.

    If this is true for children with varying special needs, why wouldn’t it be true for all children? Afterall, the basic concepts are the same, it’s just their development and abilities that vary.

  5. I don’t know about flashcards at a Little League game (although if you’re going to do the flashcards anyway, that could be a good time and place?), but my kids will absolutely be learning to read at a young age. My grandmother started teaching me when I was two, and I can’t imagine making my kids wait until 6 years old or later to be able to read even the most basic words.

    Based on my limited experience with foreign languages, illiteracy seems like a horrible fate. Even for a four-year-old. (Not to mention that being unable to read signs would discourage me from trusting my kids to go “free-range”.)

  6. My 6 year old was sent home from kindergarten last spring with a stack of flash cards to study over the summer. They didn’t want the kids losing their words.

    I didn’t bother. I didn’t even remember where they were until we were getting stuff ready for first grade. I showed him a few. Lo and behold, the reading we had done together and his summer long gardening and swimming had not gotten in the way of his education. He knew the words BETTER than he had at the end of kindergarten.
    Sometimes the brain does better with a rest than with constant work.

  7. Darn right! I was reading a post from a lady recently that was worried about her friends just-turned-two year old, who only had one word, and babbled everything else. She was flustered that the woman was not even using flash cards with this boy!

    My grandmother got some ABC flash cards for my son for his second birth day recently. I had to sigh. He has three out (the A, B, and C) and really has little interest in drilling them. Thank god! Although he is starting to show a little letter interest, pointing out numbers and letters and telling me “En, Oo” (one, two) when he sees them. I think that’s sufficient for now. 🙂

    How did he learn “en, oo”? Rough-housing with friends and family! One, two, three, go! Jump! Run! Crawl!

  8. I should clarify, when I say “drilling” the flash cards, I mean he brings one to me, and I tell him what the letter is and whatever else is written on the card.

  9. Most moms I know (including myself) send their kids to preschool for a break for themselves, not for the academics. The preschool my son goes to is play and morality based – they emphasize manners, good morals, spirituality, etc. more than academics at this age.

    You can learn SOME things through play, but, honestly, some things are for most kids best learned through drilling of some kind – vocabulary, spelling, times tables, conjugation of foriegn words, etc. You just don’t need to learn those things at 3-4. But the fact that there’s so much homework now in elementary school? They don’t drill in school anymore, so the kids have to learn a lot of the stuff at home we used to learn at school through drills.

  10. Hot housed kids may force bloom faster – but the bloom fades fast.

    You want your child to be a reader – put the flash cards away. Get out a book, sit down with your child, cuddle up and read to your child. Read to your child every day. You will foster a life long love of reading.

    You want your child to be good at math –
    – Cook with him/her
    – Build things
    – Measure the garden and figure out how much soil you need to buy.

    (Oh reciting the numbers 1 – 10 is basically useless. They need to count real things. Like trees on the you pass on a bike ride)

    Brain research shows that the math section of the brain is the same section that is involved in motor control. That is one reason hands on is so important.

    Science important to you – get them outside. My students live about 50 miles from the ocean and have never seen it.

  11. What a great article! I run a play-based nursery school out of my house, and my oldest just started kindergarten at the lab school at Tufts University. It’s a child-centered, play-based program. I’ve been delighted with her school, but appalled at the stories I hear from parents of kids in our local public school. Their kids are being made to do long homework sessions at night or risk losing recess the following day – in kindergarten and first grade! Additionally, they are punished for being even a few minutes late, even during the first two weeks of school. The kids are also expected to stick to a strict 20-minute lunch period. And parents are not allowed to drop their kids off in their classrooms – they have to leave them in the cafeteria or in front of the building. Does anyone think this is the right way to get 5 and 6 year olds started in school?

  12. I’ve bucked this early academicization of preschoolers and kindergartners with all my kids. Result: They all were top readers by 4th grade and read for pleasure.

    The school system now gives daily homework for kindergartners here. If you protest you are deemed irresponsible. In elementary school they required a daily signature to make sure the parent is ‘involved’. My answer was the signature stamp. Those bastards weren’t going to dictate how I spent my time with my kids.

    My daughter Anna was criticized for not knowing her letters when she entered kindergarten. Excuse me? When I went to school they barely started introducing them in kindergarten. I bucked the system. By 4th grade she was the top reader of all 4th graders.

    Studies have shown that normal children who are NOT pushed to read early surpass the ones who were pushed by 4th grade.

  13. I think that with all of these issues, it is important to remember that each kid is different and there are kids who want worksheets, flash cards, etc. As a teacher and a mom, I see the variety in children and know that I don’t push my son academically, but he is the type of kid who wants the flash cards and worksheets. I write this knowing that people are going to say “nah, she is just one of those pushy parents”, but really my son can do 100 piece puzzles at 3, but I am more than happy for him to go into nursery school and sit down with the 10 piece puzzles they have there for him. I cook with my child, play with my child, make sure my child has plenty of opportunity for play, but also allow him to do some worksheets and try to read at three. I follow his lead.

  14. @LK, I think following your child’s the best way to go. My son loved doing workbooks – the wipeoff kind you buy at Wally World. He would sit for the longest time working on the activities. My daughter – not so much – so I did other things with her. We steered away from flash cards though. They never really seemed very exciting. I did read to them every night and now they are both ahead of the rest of their grades, even though they couldn’t read on their own before starting school. So, yeah, follow their lead and don’t forget the importance of play.

    And no flash cards at Little League. Good grief!! That poor kid is going to hate school before even getting started.

  15. Oh, as a preschool teacher, I am literally applauding at this post!! Please, please, please parents, take heed. Yes, four year olds can be a whole lot more self-sufficient than we give them credit for!

  16. LK, Exactly. That perspective really needs to be heard. Our relatives bought flash cards for gifts. We didn’t open them, but our three-year-old wanted to know what was in the boxes. So we showed him. He happens to enjoy them.

    He also spends weeks in the backcountry with us, playing with nothing but sticks, rocks and pine cones. And he seems to be just as happy with those as he does sometimes at home with the flash cards.

  17. Oh there are so many excellent books on this topic, a sample few:

    *Einstein Never Used Flash Cards
    *The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World
    *Taking Back Childhood
    *The Power of Play
    *Last Child in the Woods
    *The Hurried Child
    and a fun book to read with children, “Let’s Do Nothing!”

    The list goes on…………..

    As a parent of two young children, it saddens me to see our country and almost every family in my community, strapping their young children with over-scheduled madness of organized activity, sport, club, lessons, group gathering or formalized playdate. Childhood has certainly become a race, created by THE PARENTS.

    Slow down people. Breathe. Let the children be children. Afterall, the only thing children truly want is our time. Not structured insanity.

    For more on this effort to restore childhood in our country, visit:

  18. I have noticed in my 3rd grader’s class, the kids who were hot housed as very young children are seriously falling behind. Why? Because they are unable to think! The kids who have had time to play and use their imaginations can come up with amazing ideas on their own. The kids who have been force fed flash cards and formal lessons in sports, musical instruments etc., from age 2 or 3, can only tell you what they have been told.

  19. When I was living in NYC they wanted my daughter to start pre-K at THREE! By kindergarten she was stressed, and unhappy with the insane work load. Now we are living in a different area, in a school more intuned to our needs and she is thriving.

  20. Do you jabber with your preschooler?. Chatter away with them when they’re getting dressed, at meals, in the car….? Because maybe you’re “preparing your child for preschool” already without knowing it! . There’s good research showing that the more you talk to your kids, the bigger their vocabulary. And the bigger the vocabulary, the easier it is to learn how to read. Conversation is easy for us and good for the kids. Doin’ what comes naturally …..

    Kathy Seal

  21. Yeah … we have what is (I think) actually quite a good “structured” childcare/preschool in my town, but when my cousin commented (with an eye-roll) that she had to go in for the annual meeting with the caregivers to discuss what her “goals” for her 9-month old were for the year, I knew that wasn’t the place for my family. We went with home-based, play-focused. Love it.

    At 2.5, DS is already somewhat interested in learning about words and letters, but mostly we just point to some we see on signs when we are out walking together or in his picture books when we are reading together. He’s actually quite funny because he has learned what a “D for Daddy” looks like and has decided that the sound “D” is a synonym for the word letter. So when we are drawing together he will now ask me to draw him a “D for Daddy … D for Mama … D for Granny … D for Truck” and so forth.

  22. Hear, hear!

    I know a lot of people (both kids and adults) who learned to read well before starting school. All of them have two things in common: first, they live (or grew up) in households with lots of available books; and, second, they are self-taught — nobody made any special effort to teach them to read.

    I, on the other hand, didn’t figure it out until halfway through Grade 1, despite years and years of my dad’s attempts to make me an early reader. (He finally gave up on me and didn’t even try with my little brother, who nevertheless somehow was reading LOTR by the time he was eight.)

    Maybe we should start treating academic skills the way we treat developmental skills — as having a wide range of normal, and as best developed through normal day-to-day activities. After all, we don’t flunk our kids for not learning to crawl at precisely six months, do we?

  23. This is exactly why we homeschool. Life is way too short to be cooped up in a classroom doing workbooks or whatever someone else has decided is the best way for you (and 30 other completely unique children) to learn. My kids help choose and plan what we study, and when we’re done, they go PLAY! Thank God for people like John Holt.

  24. I have a four year old preschooler who mostly goes to hang out with her *girlfriends* while mommy cooks and cleans. I usually pick her up an hour early.

    By contrast, the “elite-wanna-be” preschool her older sister attended began to actively discourage part-time preschool by re-structuring tuition to, in effect, penalize that choice.

    Despite this, I continued picking that daughter up at noon (instead of 3 pm). I informed the administration that I could never leave her there all day or she might experience a developmental delay!

    Once again, “studies have shown…” yet I would hear other parents earnestly discuss in how little Chase or Elizabeth might “fall behind” if they didn’t spend all day in preschool. Fear-based conformity reigned.

  25. The best advice I ever got was from my counsellor with Thing 1. Had postnatal depression and I was so worried about “bonding” she just said to me talk to him and tell him what you are doing. Well i did, spent all my time saying things like “ok we are going to go and buy some red apples now” and this is “our grey car and I am unlocking the door” ( yes people would look at me oddly but hey ho who cares). Thankfully the depression went but not the talking by three he new his colours ,could count and even read a few words without a single flash card! I remember when Thing 2 was about three and half i suddenly thought good grief maybe we should do some alphabet stuff – sat down with him and showed him a few – he knew them all – I thought the boy is a genius – he said mom this is a waste of time Thing 1 has already shown me these! I have made a stand with the school and told them that at the moment I am willing to let them do homework during the week but will not have their weekends used for it. Not very popular but they still love to play together and had reached the point where they could not even do that!

  26. I know a lot of people (both kids and adults) who learned to read well before starting school. All of them have two things in common: first, they live (or grew up) in households with lots of available books; and, second, they are self-taught — nobody made any special effort to teach them to read.

    Well, Marie Curie’s sister *did* actively teach her to read at the age of three… but the way I heard it, she didn’t expect her sister to learn anything, she was just playing school as a way to make her own drilling less tedious.

    Little Manya’s parents, incidentally, were so concerned over this that they didn’t let her read books until she entered school properly.

  27. I’m sure somebody will be quick to call me a liar, but…

    I was reading at a third-grade level when I was three. I skipped kindergarten, and I LOVED school. Never fell behind, never hated it, never stopped wanting to find out more things and dig into more subjects. (Except math, LOL, but that’s another whole post…)

    My mom used two methods to teach my sister and I reading. She’d read to us constantly, and use her finger to follow the words along as she went. It wasn’t long before we were reading them to her, and then writing our own stories (the earliest one I’ve found a copy of was a snowman saga I wrote when I was four.)

    The other method was, you guessed it, flashcards.

    She made her own on little index cards (this was the 70s, so it wasn’t exactly a hot topic yet), and used words for things that we knew; Mommy, Daddy, toes, cat, door, hot, Barbie doll, shoes, etc.

    She never “pushed us to achieve” or forced us to sit down and do them; it was just a game that we both liked and it made my sister and I feel like grownups. All kids like that feeling; hell, that’s why most of us first try drinking coffee.

    She just did it as a game, and we demanded to play it all the time. Pretty soon, I was reading my favorite store signs, snack food logos, and toy commercials. She’d stick those little suckers right into the flashcard mix, and I got to yell “PEPSI!” and “KMART!” and throw my hands up and run around the room laughing hysterically.

    T’wasn’t torture, I’m afraid.

    Granted; that depends on the kid. For my sister and I, reading was a cool game, and it stuck. I’m a professional writer and book editor, she’s a 24-year-old with a Master’s Degree who works as a children’s librarian in a major city.

    I don’t remember learning to read at all; it’s just always been my favorite hobby and something that came naturally.

    I get that we’re all against the soccer-mom hovering types who are forcing this stuff down their kids’ throats and obsessing over Yale scores at 14 months… no argument there whatsoever.

    But could we also entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, that kid at the Little League game was one of my breed, and that’s the ONLY way the parents could keep the child busy enough to sit through the game without driving everyone else in the bleachers NUTS?

    Part of the key to the Free-Range problem in the first place is that good moms and dads are paranoid about the faceless mass of OTHER parents who are lurking in the shadows, waiting to judge every parental decision they make.

    Our doing it in reverse doesn’t make us any better.

  28. Have you seen the videos that teach your baby to read? My friends sat their baby through them daily. I tried to watch with mine and left in the middle–Never again!

    We have an annual “Baby Expo” at a convention center and it is filled with booths hawking products promising to make your baby better than others. They even make you pay money to get in!


  29. I just talked my sister out of putting her 3yo in pre-k. It was all day and he needs to be home playing, not cooped up in a classroom. I have a friend whose 3yo niece had a referral from her pre-k to get tested for ADD/ADHD. Why, you might ask? Because she wouldn’t answer questions about the stories they would read in class. Or if she did deign to answer, she usually replaced the lead character with a unicorn. Toddlers should be read to for the enjoyment of it not to be quizzed about what they just listened to.

    Amy – That’s exactly why I homeschool too!

    As for reading, I had both of my children reading before Kindergarten but it was a convenience thing for me. As a single, working mother they had to be able to assist with their own lessons even in Kindergarten. I found a fantastic book that taught reading through games and literally 2-3 minutes of a lesson daily. They were reading sentences within 3 weeks. However, one of my closest friends has a son that didn’t learn to read fluently until he was almost 10. He is one of the smartest kids I know, not reading did not hold him back at all. I think it depends on the child. I also agree the best thing you can do is just read to them and give them access to books. The rest will follow.

  30. From a recent Starbucks’ “The Way I see It”

    “When I was young I was mislead by flashcards into believing that xylophones and zebras were much more common.”

  31. “But could we also entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, that kid at the Little League game was one of my breed, and that’s the ONLY way the parents could keep the child busy enough to sit through the game without driving everyone else in the bleachers NUTS?
    Part of the key to the Free-Range problem in the first place is that good moms and dads are paranoid about the faceless mass of OTHER parents who are lurking in the shadows, waiting to judge every parental decision they make. Our doing it in reverse doesn’t make us any better.”


  32. I’m not sure where these schools are that are so rigid and homework focused but I’m sure glad that my kids don’t go there. I have a 1st grader and a kindergartener and they never have home work (and they go to public school). My oldest did go to preschool when she was 3 but it was just two hours of fun, she loved it.

  33. My 3 yo grandson goes to full-time preschool. Both his grampa and I work, and we can’t dispense with one income. We are fortunate here in 2 ways; for 1, we can now afford high quality care, so he goes to the top-rated preschool in our city, and for 2, that preschool is play-based, child-led learning. This says something about our community and the parents in it also. He loves it! They go on long walks, they count fish at the fish ladder, they roll around in the dandelions, making bunches of them, maybe categorizing them by stem length, maybe by blossom size… but the important thing is, the teachers watch how the KIDS choose to categorize, and perhaps offer some input and guidance. If all the kids want to do with their dandelions or whatever is to make them into magic wands, well, they’re magic wands! They don’t plan lessons per se. They set up the environment, and watch what the kids choose to do, taking their cues from the kids.

    That said, I’m sure I’ll be homeschooling again at some point. After 5th grade, a good school is not to be found here. There’s a K-5 that runs on the same principle, but after that… nada.

    Meanwhile, he’s happy, we’re happy, and he gets waaaaaay more outside time, and playtime (they have access to a gymnasium in the building in the winter, there’s a school kitty, and they visit the upper grade classrooms, each of which has a reading loft), and reading than we, at this point, could EVER provide at home, just out of the necessity of required worktime.

    Gotta got get him to school now. Awesome fieldtrip… long exploratory walk through the parks and downtown, looking for interesting things. Structure? They have lunch at noon….

  34. Oops, reading this post and all the comments has made me late to drop thing 2 off at preschool! Play-based, Child-led, parent-involved!

    P.S. Her doctor says of the fact she can’t count past 10, doesn’t know her phone number: “Just keep practicing. She needs to know this by now.” she just turned 4!

  35. I second what Tracy Lucas wrote!

    As a former member of the Bleacher Rats, the idea of a parent FORCING a child to study flashcards at a ball game makes me more than a little sad.

    How fondly I remember stuffing my face with Suzy-Q’s and Lick-a-Maid as the sun set over the outfield. And then emerging from under the stands all sticky faced and filthy with a sugar high that could kill a small animal. Ah, the glorious days of a misspent youth!

    But now that I’m a parent myself I see that not every child likes that kind of thing. My older son will dissappear into the shadows the minute he gets out of the car but my younger son is more reluctant. He would definitely be the one sitting in the bleachers coloring or looking through a workbook. Both of them love workbooks! Where oh where have I gone wrong???

  36. Flash cards at a little league game? My 3 1/2 year old loves going to baseball games because he knows that it’s a target rich environment for his sponge-like brain. Who needs flash cards when you can count balls, strikes, and outs? Who needs flash cards when you can read numbers of the backs of players’ uniforms? And for those of us in NYC who take our kids to a ballgame via subway, who needs flashcards when you can tell your preschooler which train you need to transfer to, and you let him/her be “in charge” of finding the signs to the right train?

    Then again, maybe I’m doing something wrong since my 3 1/2 year old likes sitting through a whole major league game and never asks to leave early.

    It’s also a tool for teaching more advanced subjects. He knows that his grandparents rooted for players that included Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Sandy Koufax, and that they played for a team called the Dodgers that moved away. Someday he’ll be able to leverage that knowledge into a better understanding of the civil rights movement, the mainstreaming of Jews in the US, and the population shifts after World War 2 that included both westward movement and suburbanization.

    He learns about these things as he’s ready for them. We have a simple policy — if he asks a question, we answer it to the best of our ability. Sometimes he thinks the answer is silly (like the one about rain having something to do with excessive moisture in the clouds), but he remembers a ridiculous amount of it. If we don’t know the answer, we say so and show him how we can use books and computers to find out.

    And yes, my son does go to preschool, but it’s a school that values the importance of minimally programmed free play time. The classroom presents the kids with ample options during free play, with no one forcing the kids into one activity over another, but with every activity having value to the kids. If the kids want to paint, they can paint. If they want to experiment with water, they can do that. If they want to play in the play kitchen, they can. (My son’s imagination is sufficiently vivid that he once complained that he burned himself on a play stove — one on which the “burners” are painted onto a wood surface.)

    I just don’t see what flashcards could possibly add to his comprehension of the world around him…

  37. I always have to be the different one: My daughter *loves* flashcards. I don’t know why, but it’s been a great game for her since she was 2 or 3. So if you saw us doing flashcards, it would probably be because she begged me to.

    On the other hand, she would never choose flashcards over playing fire truck princess under the bleachers with other kids.

  38. @Tracy Lucas — you’re exactly right, it depends on the kid. I have no doubt that there are kids who love flashcards, and parents who can treat flashcards as a fun game. At our house we play arithmetic games (very basic — we just ask each other addition and subtraction questions, and very recently we started venturing into multiplication) because the kiddo thinks it’s fun. I don’t know that it’s made her any better at math, though 😉

    My observation-based theory is that reading is a developmental milestone like walking or toilet training — not every kid is ready at the same age, and things that work like a charm when the kid is ready will produce EPIC FAIL when the kid is not ready. So the key, as with potty training, is to know your own kid.

    I, as I mentioned, didn’t learn to read until I was nearly seven (halfway through Grade 1). I went on to do a degree in English and French Lit, and now I work as an editor; so I’m fairly sure I was not handicapped by what nowadays might be considered a very late start 🙂 (I did, to be fair, always have TONS of books available at home, and two hypereducated parents, and an older sister who read to me, and dictionaries in the kitchen.)

  39. I love hearing the voice of sanity…thank you!!!!!

  40. I never bothered with flashcards. They seemed so boring for both kid and parent. Instead we had some word jigsaw puzzles, but mostly just focused on reading interesting books. My older daughter (age 9) reads voraciously, and has been reading children’s novels independently since about age 6. Loving reading is the key I think. Younger daughter (age 5) is now at the stage of loving to listen to longer books, and reading beginner books by herself. But what she really likes is writing by herself, figuring out (interesting) ways to spell words…I just let them get on with having fun, which occasionally means younger one says “give me some homework” (so she can be like big sister). But I’d never “make” them do academic work at home….

  41. My son is not typical, but then who’s is? But we didn’t do any of the flash card, extra homework, whatever you may think of. In fact, once he entered kindergarten I started to feel guilty that we didn’t do ENOUGH with him. I was starting to feel Free Range Guilty.

    Then first grade rolls around. He’s reading at a 3rd grade level. His current favorite book is “The Restaurant at the end of the Universe” by my favorite author, Douglas Adams. I look at him reading this book of BRITISH humor, without anything in his background to understand it, and he’s getting jokes I didn’t get till College.

    Maybe free range did it. Maybe he’s just smarter than me. (I’ve got my money on that) But I tell you this, letting him explore his world on his own has given him an innate curiosity beyond anything his highly schooled and structured peers have. It’s actually driving his teacher batty!

    Imagine this, cause it happened.

    Teacher: “Let’s get out our Dick and Jane story.” (Okay, so it’s Ned and Ted, but you get the picture)

    My Son: “That’s boring. Let’s read something else!”

    Teacher: (I’m sure, trying to be diplomatic) “Alright, what do you suggest?”

    My Son: (Reaching into his book bag) “I want to read about Dinosaurs. Did you know Alligators are Dinosaurs? And that if an Alligator egg gets too hot it is born male, and too cold it is born female? And that they can be 13 feet long? And a Salt Water Crocodile, which is like an alligator, can grow longer than my dad’s truck?”

    Teacher: That’s very interesting. Why don’t you go to the library and find another book about dinosaurs while we read Ned and Ted

    I will say this, they finally took me serious when I told the school that if they didn’t accommodate my son’s needs in the same way they accommodate other “special” children, I’d be raising holy hell. And now a very nice young man who is in the 5th grade takes my son to the library during group reading time and they read up on interesting things and take computer based tests on the books they read. Its a start.

  42. Like a bunch of posters have pointed out, a lot really does depend on the child in question. My mom started teaching me letters and how to read way before I entered kindergarten by using a lot of different methods – playing with a magnetized alphabet & blackboard, reading to me/reading along with me to books on tape or record (anyone remember those books that came with 6″ vinyl back in the late 70s/early 80s?); I’m pretty sure if flash cards had been big then she might have tried those too. There was also teaching me basic numbers & A LOT of puzzle play but from the notes she wrote in my baby/toddler book, I apparently didn’t like it if she tried to help me. 🙂 As a result I was ahead of the average abilities in my peer group. But here’s the thing – it was fairly obvious early on that I was a book fanatic and that the two best ways to keep me occupied were to either give me a book or a puzzle, so what my mom did with me worked, I think, because she was taking her cues from me and pushing me just slightly beyond where I was comfortable. Also, while she made sure to spend a certain amount of time each day teaching me my letters & numbers, it wasn’t overdone – I had plenty of time for unstructured play by myself or with the neighborhood kids. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were people who thought she was pushing me too much, but here I am at 31 working full time as an editor while pursing a MFA in Creative Non-Fiction writing & freelance writing work, still reading voraciously and loving school & learning so much I hope I can go back eventually for a PhD in literature (but ok, maybe I did resent having to spend 1/2 hr at the piano with her every day a little bit). As people have pointed out here, kids are going to learn at their own paces and being paranoid about getting them “ahead” of the pack and forcing more academic methods of teaching on them before they’re ready isn’t going to do any good.

    I also think a lot depends on the school program and finding one that works for your child, too. In kindergarten we were learning everything from basic math to reading to music (how to follow basic rhythms & syncopation) to the color wheel to even speaking French (mostly learning basic words, counting from 1-20 & names of barnyard animals). The teachers understood that kids learn as much from actually doing things as they do from being told how/what to do, so the way that the program was structured, it was FUN – very play-based, lots of singing and games, and a good proportion of structured-to-unstructured time for the kids (recess seemed to go on forever). They even took us out on nature walks through the forest preserve around the school. Progress reports were very personalized for each student (I even went back awhile ago to get my records for an essay project of mine and wow, were those teacher notes thorough), so that the parents & teachers could discuss the kids’ individual needs (it helped that the class sizes were capped at 32 students & there were 2 teachers).

    I still go back to visit (I went there K-8) and I’m actually a bit envious of the kids there – they recently had some new playground equipment installed and it’s the coolest thing EVER. Apparently they picked equipment designed to help facilitate imaginative play so there’s a lot of maze-like structures built with slides, swings, etc., and even a jungle gym made of knotted & woven climbing rope that’s shaped into an inverted cone-like wobbly web and rises pretty high up. I took a picture, wish I could post it. K-8 share the same playground space (just at different times for K, 1-4 & 5-8), so my old teacher tells me even the middle schoolers love that jungle gym. I couldn’t help it – I gave it a little climb myself – it made me feel like I was 10 all over again. 🙂

  43. While I’m in favor of playful learning, do we really want to attack parents using flashcards? It’s an old tradition of us journalists (I am one) that we attract readers by conflict, but among parents, I think some of the empathy shown by comments on this page is an awfully good alternative to parents criticizing each other. Criticizing other parents can feel good, I’m very well aware. Perhaps it validates the path we ourselves have chosen.
    But in the long run, trying to understand what others are doing and why and having a helpful empathic stance towards other moms struggling just as we are ….. might make us all friendlier with each other, and therefore happier.
    I know I’ll be in the minority on this one!

  44. @ Michael

    HA! That’s hilarious! I feel for your son, I was in a similar boat. Not only was I reading books above my class level, I was reading them faster, so I burned through the collection in the classroom library quickly. Luckily my teachers agreed to let me bring my own books or raid the larger school library for reading time to keep me busy so while my classmates were reading about how fast Tom & Jane run, I was reading about the samurai & Greek myths (my dad was something of a Japanese history & mythology nerd). By the time I got to high school, I worked out an agreement with my AP English teacher that if I finished the assigned book early, took her test on it and passed with a minimum of an A-, I could skip class until the next book and have a free period. I spent A LOT of my English classes in either the library or art room. I hope the school continues to make accommodations like this to nurture your son’s curiosity & book love, but I hope you’ve got a library card – otherwise you’re going to be drowning in books before he hits 16.

  45. @ Kathy Seal

    I agree – I think that ultimately it comes down to parents figuring out what works best for their child, whether it’s flash cards or puzzles or free play. It’s hard enough to do that in the face of one’s personal fears about parenting, so I can’t imagine that it’s any easier having to do so under the additional burden of outside judgments. Having discussions in which the pros & cons of any of these things are debated will hopefully expand our understanding & empathy for one another, or even introduce us to ideas that we hadn’t considered before.

    The trick, I think, is to not put an over-emphasis on teaching pre-K/K kids things like reading & math to “get them ahead” and becoming obsessed with getting little Jimmy or Jane into “the right kind of school” so they can have “the right kind of life.” Teaching a kid how to read and count or the proper way to throw a fastball is a wonderful way for parents to bond with their kids, but there definitely needs to be a balance between that kind of education & allowing a kid to just be a kid and PLAY.

  46. Michael and MFA Grad – I also have a similar story. In junior high the school approached my parents about allowing me to attend high school English classes. They agreed so I went and I loved it. However, the school had no idea what to do with me when I completed all my English requirements as a sophmore. They hadn’t thought that far ahead! Luckily, they let the teacher pick out books that she thought I would like and she gave me challenging assignments to go along with them. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Good luck with your son, Michael.

  47. Add me to the group who says it’s all about being sensitive to the individual child. I learned to read at age two from one of those “Teach Your Baby to Read” programs, (including flashcards), and neither I nor my parents ever regretted it. I have loved reading all my life. And I would much rather have been reading flash cards during a sporting event than watching the game 🙂

    But each child is different. There’s a balance between making sure a child has time to work hard and time to play, and a balance between learning from books and learning from hands-on activities. My own kids do all of those things, and I try to pay attention to what works well for each child.

  48. @Mae Mae, my local schools (in a college town) had thought that far ahead, and as highschoolers (and maybe earlier) we kids were allowed to take classes at the (state flagship) university if we had already done the secondary school stuff in that subject. I did, and enjoyed them. But many of my classmates who did so more strenuously/seriously than I (I was a smart semi-slacker though at the time I recognized only the latter of those two attributes) had pretty lackluster college careers (if they finished them).

    I’m not sure how parents can negotiate this, but my sense is that in a high pressure environment there are kids who are smart enough and motivated enough from external/parental enthusiasm (note: not necessarily pressure) to excel academically big-time, but who lack the intrinsic motivation to continue to succeed as they develop adult thinking skills, independence, and outside interests. This ties into free-range issues but on some level isn’t just about them … it’s about how to support people who are still kids and whose minds really aren’t yet fully developed, whose independence is really still pretty structured. I don’t know what the answers are or whether I’ll need to face these issues in raising my own kid, but I do see this stuff around me (still living in the same town I grew up in).

  49. By the way….


    “His current favorite book is “The Restaurant at the end of the Universe” by my favorite author, Douglas Adams.”

    Then your kid’s taste rocks!


  50. Homeschoolers can be just as bad (speaking as one.) I know some overeager young homeschool moms who feel obligated to “do school” with their 2 year olds regularly. I mean, they mostly teach them “fun stuff” like what kinds of animals there are or growing plants with your basic colors and letters and numbers thrown in, but my kids always picked this up from things called “life” and “books” (even before they could read) without my feeling like I had to “do school” before they hit normal kindergarten age. In some ways I think these folks are just playing with and teaching their kids the way normal involved parents of young children do, but in today’s hyper-academic world they feel obligated to call it “school.”

    Anyway, the bottom line is what so many folks here have said — if your child shows a particular interest in something or a preferred way of learning at a particular age, go for it! But I never did preschool either at home or outside with any of my kids and they all excel at academics, though I did start teaching them to read as soon as they seemed ready, because I wouldn’t want any child to miss even a day of being able to read. 🙂

  51. Now, if the flashcards were vintage baseball cards, she would be on to something!

  52. I agree with following your child’s interests AKA nurturing their autonomy. It’s normal and natural to feel like you want your child to learn and achieve and some of this is your ego — wanting to be proud, to do a good job with your child. So some parents get pushy. But if you’re conscious of your own ego involvement, you can put it aside and separate it from who your child is and what he or she enjoys doing.

    When I was in kindergarten, I remember staying in from recess to work on my “reading readiness workbook.” Which was silly in a way, because I already knew how to read (my older brothers had taught me)….but hey, that’s what I wanted to do! I think that’s what a lot of folks on this thread are saying. Adults followed their lead when they were kids and let them follow their own interests.

  53. The amazing thing is these flashcard carrying parents. I have seen them myself. Both of my boys have special needs. Every therapy they have, even speech and feeding therapy, is play based. Every single one is all about bringing the lessons into the games they want to play. They have so much research that proves children learn these types of things so much better through play based situations that it’s a waste of time to even deal with the formal, sitting at a table, chairs straight, looking at cards programs.

  54. pentamom— I’ve also met some utterly neurotic homeschoolers. No one group has the corner on sanity…

  55. When I was a kid, we played under the bleachers because that’s where you found the lost change ;o)

    The 3 Rs are important. Still, I’m against year ’round schools. Those three months off every year are when kids regain that wonderful spirit of freedom. I learned more about life running wild in the summer than I learned in school.

    Two of the last three summers of high school, a friend and I started and ran a small business. We cleaned rental units in Chicago. How can a kid do that when they’re booked solid?

  56. Thanks Lenore for posting my guest blog. And thanks to everyone here for your great responses.

    The flashcard-at-the-baseball-game incident was based on a true story. One of my readers at MommaSaid reported it. When she’d asked the mom why she was doing that, the mom replied, “I want her to get a leg up on the other kids.”


    Take it from someone who learned to read at 4, I know there are kids who love to learn, even with flashcards. It’s when we grown-ups use it so our preschoolers can prepare for Yale that’s disturbing to me.

    I love your comments!


  57. @kherbert :
    “Hot housed kids may force bloom faster – but the bloom fades fast.”
    I love this quote. I don’t see as much academic pressure where I live, but sports are a HUGE deal here. Hockey clinics, leagues, camps, and classes are available year-round, in addition to the stunningly-long regular season. I like having options–my children can play virtually any sport at any time of year–but I’ve found that this also breeds an amazing amount of competitiveness.
    One mother I know always declares she doesn’t want her (5/6/7 year old) son to get “burnt out” on hockey. So she only has him play regular season (Oct-Mar/Apr), then spring clinic (Apr-May), summer camp (a week in July), and then maybe fall 4-on-4 (Aug-Sept, to get him ready for the regular season). And so he’s not overwhelmed with hockey, she has him play baseball in the spring (May-July), and then soccer in the fall (Aug-Sept).
    I have never seen a more miserable player. He purposely lets his temmates go ahead so he doesn’t have to take his turn to do the drills. I don’t know if he’s just exhausted from travelling at the pace his mother sets or he’s uninterested in the sports, but I feel so sad for everyone involved–the overacheiver mother, the tired boy, and his frustrated teammates and coaches.

    Another mom loudly decalres how much of a superstar her son is–and truly, he does have amazing skills for his age. This year? He doesn’t want to play anything. The bloom’s already faded. At age 8. How sad.

  58. Actually there are four Rs now. Don’t forget the Ritalin!!!!

  59. Free Games to Download and Play! PC Games, Mac Games, Online Games, and thousands of Download Games every day!

  60. […] Lenore, fits into the writing scheme of things, and angers me on a certain level. The full post is here, but here’s the gist: Wait a minute: Are those flashcards in that mom’s hands? At a […]

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