Lifelong Learning Starts Before Preschool

This expert shares important reflections on early learning.

Posted Sep 24, 2013

Should you teach your child to read, do math, and recount facts about the world before age 4? And if you do, what options do you have later for formal schooling? Do parents who foster early learners end up with regrets?

Neuroscience is revealing special capacities for brain development before age 6 when neuroplasticity may be at its peak. Here are reflections from one of the experts.

Today, more and more studies are coming out touting the benefits of early learning. Five years ago when I began an intensive search for the science behind early reading, I struggled to find studies on 2- and 3-year-old readers. What I learned was that parents who taught their preschoolers to read were the experts. This guest post is by one of the hundreds of parents I have worked with who are experts on early learning.

Dr. Amanda Stanford teaches academic writing classes at UNC-Charlotte and Winthrop University. Her interests include teaching babies and toddlers and raising awareness of teaching very young children.

Lifelong Learning Starts Before Preschool

By Dr. Amanda Stanford

My daughter likes to tell strangers that we took her to Morocco when she was a baby and that she once had a wander around the Coliseum.

“When I was a baby, we went to Morocco.”
“That’s nice, dearie.”
“When I was a little girl, I went for a wander in the Coliseum.”
“Oh, my!”

When you are three years old, I suppose the world can seem like a strange place. But from Evie’s vantage point, in a backpack looking over my shoulder, I think the world looks like an interesting place – a place you want to tell everyone about.

“When I was a baby, I rode a camel.”
“Yes, I did. I’m going to sing a song now. The driver on the bus says, ‘scratch my toes, scratch my toes, scratch my toes.’ The driver on the bus says, ‘scratch my toes’ allllll dayyyyy lonnnngggg.”

They say you can’t pick your family, but you can pick your friends. When Evie tells people that she went for a wander in the Coliseum, I can’t help but think that while we didn’t pick Evie, we do shape how she sees the world – and how she wanders through it. At least for now.

We began Evie’s education when she was only a week old. We showed her word cards with letters 5 inches high, which helped develop her eyesight. Only a few weeks old, she would often watch me in the kitchen while her father held her in the living room, and it was obvious that she was watching me – when I would wave she would smile and stretch out her hands. From there we moved on to 3 inch high word cards, word videos, and those big squishy books with simple stories (which she could flip through independently by four months old). By six months, Evie could make her desires understood most of the time with gestures, grunts and eye movements, but was often frustrated by her lack of verbal skills. By nine months, she had learned how to effectively communicate and she could carry on both non-verbal and verbal conversations. By eighteen months she could mime at least 100 word cards of the parts of the body and actions, in addition to reading the storybooks I had made for her using these simple words. Around that time as well, I began showing her Bits of Information cards (from the and talking about the places we had been, and the places I hoped we would soon go.

Evie’s actual word usage was well below average at two and a half, but soon after, her language skills exploded. Now at three and a half, Evie speaks in whole paragraphs; clearly, completely, and (hilariously) with a British inflection from her years in Scotland, UK. She can now read more than 250 single word cards, several short books and animated stories on, and she knows thousands of Bits of Information. She is also a delightful little girl who loves the color pink, animals, baby dolls and dinosaurs.

Having just moved back to the United States, we are wondering where Evie should go to school. As she is only 3 and won’t turn 4 until April of next year, this leaves us an ample amount of time to consider our options. Back in the UK, when the local educators met her, I was told that she would either “grow out of it” or be pushed up a grade. I was not impressed. I don’t want her to “grow out of it” or be pressured into conforming to expectations of which she would have no prior knowledge.

Here in the US, there seems to be a myriad of educational choices. Montessori, language schools, play school, public school, home school, parochial school, and the list continues. The educators I have met here in the US talk about different literacies and learning styles, helping our children grow, and helping our children fulfill their potential. This is all fine and good, until I think back to being told she’ll “grow out of it” and suddenly, all this “help” doesn’t seem so helpful.

The problem isn’t that Evie needs help; she needs space. Evie is a leader; she starts the games and sets the tone in most situations (no matter how much older the other children might be), and she is very much herself. She knows her own mind and makes connections with surprising sophistication. For example, Evie has a genuine passion for dogs, but would often scare them away with her excitement, so I taught her to hold her hand out to a new dog to see if he would be interested in being her friend. If the dog responded favorably with a lick or tail-wag, I told her it would be all right to pet him. When she makes a new dog friend, she’ll often proudly say, “Mummy, look! He’s interested!”

At the airport on the way over to the US from the UK, Evie wanted to make friends with a little boy. He was a bit older and had no real interest in playing with such a little girl. “Hello,” she said to him. “My name is Evie. What’s your name?” When she didn’t get a response from him, she dashed over to me shouting, “Mummy! He’s not interested!” The other passengers giggled. She found an Italian family to play with instead, because the thing is, Evie doesn’t care if her new friend is an eight-year-old boy, a little old lady, a kitten, puppy or elephant, or five squabbling Italian-only speaking siblings. Her view of the world is interesting enough to be interested in all of them. Like most children who can read, are verbal and intelligent (and curious, stubborn, and willful) at a very young age, I really wonder if any school can fit the bill.

Does this mean I regret teaching her to read, do math, and learn about the world from such a young age? Absolutely not. In doing so, I’ve shown her that learning comes not only from books or teachers, but from life itself. By teaching her so young (and by doing so in a joyous, fun, and exciting way), I’ve embedded the idea deep within her that learning is not only essential, but marvelous. And because of this, and the utter importance I attach to it, I’m reluctant to let someone waltz in and make her feel like a freak – for someone to come in to her kindergarten classroom and tell her that she shouldn’t be reading, shouldn’t be doing math, shouldn’t know so much because she’s so young.

Evie and Pops star gazing.

Evie Star Gazing with Pops

My hope for this world is that children like Evie become more common, not resented or seen as a difficulty to be dealt with, a problem to be solved. I wish that we could let go of the notion that intelligence and potential has a start-date. I wish that we would realize that our babies and toddlers don’t think of learning as we do—as books and tests—but as vivid experiences, complex games, and marvelous adventures. And I hope parents can believe their babies and toddlers can, and desperately want, to learn to read and do math—even before they can walk and talk.

Lastly, I hope we can find a school for Evie that will be a place where she can continue to wander through life learning about our world’s splendid history, its exotic flora and fauna, its cultures, peoples and complexities. The school of my dreams for Evie is a place where intelligent, precocious children are the rule, not the exception, where the teachers lead by example, and is a place where learning is done with creativity, curiosity, and joy.

Dr. Amanda Stanford

Charlotte, North Carolina

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.