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Should You Opt for Learning or Play in the Early Years?

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Many parents struggle with whether or not to enroll their children in activities and courses before kindergarten, or to simply let kids be kids. On one hand, pushing your child to succeed academically before kindergarten can seem unnecessary, and even unhealthy at times. However when you see other parents focused on preparing their children for kindergarten, you can't help but wonder if your child will be left behind.

Fear of falling behind is NOT a good reason to send your child to school early. With that said, leaving your child at home to allow him or her plenty of time to play, is not necessarily the best option either.

The reason why parents and teachers feel forced to choose between learning and play is because they are not aware that doing one doesn't necessarily mean ignoring the other. Many parents and early learning centres have focused solely on free play or strict school-like lessons. The reality is, you can choose a hybrid of both. By this I don't mean a few strict lessons intertwined with free play. I mean creating an environment (whether it be at home or school) in which children can play, discover, make friends, laugh and express themselves, while receiving the stimulation they need to develop their brains to the fullest potential. Children rarely reach their fullest potential playing alone. By creating a play environment rich in language and allowing your child interactions with teachers and other children, you are nurturing your child's natural curiosity and stimulating their brain development at a critical age.

Research shows that a child's brain is in its most formative years before the age of six. This is a prime time for a child to learn as the impact is thought to be greater than all the years of elementary education combined. For this reason, I always recommend that parents expose their children to as much learning as possible before the age of six.

I caution you, however, to choose a program that is respectful of your child's interests and needs. If keeping your child at home is your best option, remember that children benefit tremendously from socializing with other children. So do your best to provide social experiences for your children in an environment where they can also begin to develop a variety of skills from reasoning to experimenting to reading, art and everything in between.

As long as your child receives the stimulation and socialization needed, the way you achieve this is not as important.

The other thing I would like to caution you of, is over-booking your child with activities. Parents who enroll their children in various activities each and every day may actually be depriving them of one essential component: the freedom to think independently. Always following instructions from teachers limits a child's critical thinking skills. Allow your child to spend longer amounts of time with friends as opposed to always enrolling them in highly structured music or dance classes. Let them play what they want to play. Too many activities and social settings for your child can cause unnecessary stress.

Children also need plenty of idle time. One of the biggest misconceptions in our society is that children must be busy all the time. Children need to take their time, spend time alone, and become involved in nothing in particular. This is how they develop their imaginations and actually learn from their environment.

An ideal early learning program should respect a child's interest and desire to participate (or not) in a variety of activities. Thankfully for Canadian parents, there are wonderful programs available for young children, which vary from only a few days a week to full-time.

To enhance your child's daily learning at home, try taking your time before, during and after your scheduled activities. Next time you walk to the park, notice how many things your child stops to explore, from a tiny bug to a colorful sign. Adults are more goal-oriented and want to get from point A to point B as fast as possible. Remember, for a child, everything is new. They may never have seen an insect climbing a leaf in a garden. They are learning so much about the way it moves, eats, and lives.

Learning about the world around them, classifying and interpreting that knowledge is how young children learn. You may think the park is fun for them, but absorbing their surroundings on the way there is just as interesting for them. All you have to do to provide these learning experiences is leave home with plenty of time and patience so your child is not rushed and can explore at ease. Similarly, when you go to the supermarket, take time to chat with them about the fruits and vegetables. Explore the different shapes, colours, and textures.

I wish you the very best in this wonderful journey. And I especially hope you take the time to enjoy it together, and talk about your wonderful experiences as a family!