In the Sandbox
By Shannon Cannon
Plato once said, "Do not then train youth to learn by force or harshness, yet lead them to it by what amuses their minds so that you may discover the peculiar genius of each."
When I was 5, I loved to trudge through the furrows after my dad as he was plowing up the garden. I would feel the dirt between my toes and stop once in awhile to gather another pet worm. I learned that under the seemingly hard ground was this whole other world waiting to be explored. I learned about bugs and worms and soil and planting and staying in footprints much larger than mine. I didn't learn these things sitting in a circle in a classroom or from a book or even from a little dirt-filled paper cup in the window. I learned them by experiencing them.
As a new mother, I wanted my children to experience the dirt like I did. And eggs, and anthills, and dancing, and bubbles, and giggling, and playdough, and leaves, and colors, and the millions of other things that this world has for them to explore. I didn't want them to miss out on anything.
At the same time, I was concerned that they somehow learn the basics that they would need as they started school. We decided to begin a "play" school and organize our experiences by letter. Then at the beginning of each day we would mention the "letter of the week", and decide on some activities that would begin with that letter. Some weeks we searched for evergreen trees and dissected eggs and explored our different emotions. Other weeks we pretended to be monkeys and made mud pies and watched ice melt and looked long and hard at the moon. Sometimes we held our own circus and had taste tests with different kinds of cereal and played cards and sprawled out on the grass to discover shapes in the clouds.
And always there was fun and always there was learning, even if it sometimes wasn't recognized as such. By the time we had been through each letter once or twice, our oldest was beginning to put letters together to read. I don't think she could tell you how or when she learned the sound of 'e' or 'm', but she knew them. And soon she was reading well enough to learn new things on her own.
You've heard the theory that what we hear we forget, what we see we remember and what we do becomes a part of us. How true this is for children.
They can learn about art by squishing playdough into snakes and igloos, or by fingerpainting in pudding, or by mixing the primary colors and finding out what new colors are made.
They can learn science by sticking everything they can find next to a magnet to find out what it attracts, or by looking at different bugs and figuring out what all insects have in common, or by using all of their senses to decide what the weather is like today.
They can learn music by being the speckled frog sitting on a speckled log, or by lying down with their eyes closed and breathing in time to a classical piece, or by practicing being the staccatos in a song full of them.
They can learn math by pouring teaspoon after teaspoon into a measuring cup, or by going on a scavenger hunt in search of circles, or by filling an egg carton with a dozen rocks or a dozen pennies or (better yet) a dozen marshmallows.
They can learn language through experience by decorating an egg to look like Humpty Dumpty and dropping him off a wall, or by gathering, on tape, all the sounds that "Mr. Brown" can make, or by making some of your own Stone Soup.
They can learn about food by making kabobs using their own ideas for ingredients, or by juicing an orange and comparing it to juice from a can, or by mixing a batch of bread with their hands and then watching it rise and bake into fun shapes.
To teach children when they are young is much more about playing and discovering and much less about crayons and glue and workbooks. If we provide activities that will help children move, discover, play, create, sing, and work, they will be learning through experience more than we can teach them in any other way. "A child's work is a child's play" is an absolute truth. It is how they learn about their environment, their abilities, and their place in the world.
If the kids get tired after 1 or 2 activities, we will read, or sing, or go play in the sandbox. No pushing, no forcing, and it should be fun for them or the whole point is missed. So much of preschooling or educating our children seems to involve training them to learn by force, sitting down at a table filling out worksheets or practicing flash cards. How much more effective we can be if we will find the things they enjoy and help them learn and discover the treasure of it all.
Even if it's in the sandbox.