One of the distinguishing factors of a Charlotte Mason education is that formal lessons should wait until a child is six. In a world that starts preschool at the age of two, putting academics on hold can be terrifying. We don’t want to put our children at a disadvantage by hindering them in any way. Choosing to delay formal lessons sometimes gets us funny looks and investigation from those who care (Miss H’s doctor asks us about preschool every time we visit!) I’ve touched on this topic before in my preschool guide, but in this post, I dig into what research says about early academics, and how this earlier is better mentality started in America.
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What Charlotte Mason Said About Delayed Formal Lessons
No, let us be content to be the handmaids of Nature for the first five or six years, remembering that enormous as are the tasks she sets the children, she guides them into the performance of each so that it is done with unfailing delight; for gaiety, delight, mirth, belong to her method. If a child chooses to read and write before he is six, let him, but do not make him; and when he does begin, there is no occasion to hurry; let him have a couple of years for the task.” The Parents Review, Volume XXIII
We begin the definite ‘school’ education of children when they are six; they are no doubt capable of beginning a year or two earlier but the fact is that nature and circumstances have provided such a wide field of education for young children that it seems better to abstain from requiring direct intellectual efforts until they have arrived at that age.” A Philosophy of Education, page 159
These early years contain many indirect opportunities to learn. But sitting down with alphabet worksheets and drilling math facts are not something that children need to do at the age of 2. This is another instance where Charlotte Mason’s advice is completely relevant today and lines up with educational research.
What Research Says About Early Academics
The idea that “earlier is better” when it comes to academics is deeply ingrained in our society. I recently watched a new father go over alphabet sounds with his infant. If these skills are important for a child, then they must be important for every child, no matter their age. Right? No. Replacing play with academics is a little bit like expecting a sedentary person to run a marathon. There are skills that need to be developed and honed before the task can be accomplished. This is child development.
Last week, I grabbed a copy of What If Everybody Understood Child Development? at the library. So many of the chapters touch on topics that were dear to Charlotte Mason’s heart (I’ll have to write a review of the whole book once I’m done with it!) The chapter called, “The Earlier, the Better?” refers to research on the topic.
- Children who are taught to read at an early age (not specified) have increased vision problems
- When taught to read at age five, children have more difficulty learning than those who are taught at age seven
- By third grade, there is no significant reading ability difference between children who were taught to read early or later
- Child development cannot be accelerated through early academics
How did the Earlier Is Better Idea Get Started?
“Earlier is better” IS applicable in some cases. This research paper, Changing Readers, Changing Texts, says that early academic intervention is the best approach for “low-achieving”, at-risk children. These children often do not speak English at home, have books read aloud to them, or even have access to books. Having academic interventions early and outside the home can make a difference. So, for some, there is truth to this idea. But it seems like some people ran with it.
In “What if Everybody Understood Child Development?,” Rae Pica explained that policy makers have been pushing academics earlier and earlier in an attempt to “fix” education in America. Parents, wanting to set a good academic stage for their children, also have accelerated this idea. Pica explained that parents have put pressure on preschools to become more academic and include less play. Preschools, not wanting to be abandoned, comply.
Delaying Lessons is Actually a Good Thing!
Delaying formal lessons is not only not bad, it is actually good for many children! Being outside, playing with others, and learning how to solve problems are educational. The skills learned through those things will be used throughout their entire lives. So if you feel nervous about not diving into early academics, rest easy, Mom! Enjoy these precious, low-pressure years!