Looking into the eyes of your precious little one, you see an almost tangible excitement as she discovers new letters and words and colors and shapes! You catch her excitement and cannot wait to teach her more…and more…and more! The journey of learning is well under way.
Learning naturally processes through a series of stages as children’s brains mature. Although the boundaries of these stages are by no means rigid, distinctions do exist based on how children develop. So, what should you expect in each of these stages? How should the developmental process affect how we teach?
Stage 1: Starting Out
We’ve all heard it said that young minds are like sponges, and the saying is indeed true. Little ones take in an abundant amount of information, beginning even before birth. By the time they reach first or second grade, this absorption learning begins to morph into a great enthusiasm and excitement about academics. But, in order to reach that excitement, we must remember to fill the early learning years with tools that our children need to prepare for learning. This is the time to let our children explore, gather, accumulate, and absorb as much as possible in fun, exciting ways.
When we let our early learners absorb without weighing them down with heavily structured learning, it may feel as if we are neglecting academic development that will get them ahead in future years. But the opposite is actually true. We are actually equipping them, laying a foundation that will allow them to truly enjoy the more formal learning that is to come.
- Provide information in a variety of ways. Look for bugs and plant life while playing in the backyard. Explore books, books, and more books. Play games. In the process, use “real” words. Call spiders arachnids and let children memorize entire verses of Scripture instead of modified child-friendly versions. Keep information age-appropriate, but do not back down from challenging information.
- Read and read some more. Reading aloud together is a great relational activity that also instills a love of books. If your child learns now that books are beautiful, then there will be no limit to the fountain of understanding later in life.
- Observe. Because your precious young learner is learning naturally, this is the perfect time to watch for learning styles to reveal themselves. Does your child pour over picture books or does he prefer to hear a story read aloud? Does she constantly move while learning something new? Does music help him focus better? By observing these patterns now, you will be able to tailor future academics to fit your child’s learning styles.
As you process through this stage, consider it to be an opportunity to store up building blocks for later usage.
Stage 2: Getting Excited
It is so much fun to watch the enthusiasm and excitement build as children begin elementary school. But, how do we keep that excitement burning in our young learners? An important reality to remember is that these early academic years are not intended to be processing years. They are, instead, collection years. Just as in the Starting Out stage, it is imperative that we continue to encourage exploration and absorption in a fun manner.
The excitement stage of learning will, naturally, start to see an implementation of targeted learning tools such as flashcards and learning games, as well as a few workbooks for writing and math. Here are a few practical ways to introduce those tools while still maintaining the enthusiasm of the Getting Excited stage:
- Continue to vary learning experiences. Take field trips. Let science be fun exploration instead of the reading of textbooks. Use plays, puppet shows, international foods, and dress-up to teach social studies. Adopt a missionary or an unreached people group. Play games. Some subjects do require an introduction to workbooks. For everything else, though, find a way to teach through hands-on activities, picture books, living books, and games.
- Explore. If your child shows an interest in a specific topic, explore more deeply. In later years, academic depth will become more important, and time to explore will have to be more targeted. So, for now, enjoy wide exploration.
- Keep on reading. The importance of reading aloud together does not diminish during these early elementary years. If anything, it only increases! By reading aloud with your child, you not only reinforce a love of books. You also strengthen your child’s early reading abilities (even if she is slow to read on her own!), continue nurturing a bond through a mutual love of stories, and introduce foundational concepts through the powerful medium of literature.
As you process through this stage, you begin to use the building blocks you started storing in the Starting Out stage.
Stage 3: Beginning to Understand
Somewhere around fourth or fifth grade, a tangible change begins to take place in your child. Connections start clicking into place. Light bulbs come on. An understanding dawns. The change is subtle at first, but, as you ask comprehension questions, discuss prayer requests, or explore the impact of experiences, you will notice a new depth to your child’s conversational contributions.
These understanding years, typically fitting into what is now referred to as middle school, form a bridge between the years of excitement and the deeper thinking required in high school.
So, what does this look like practically?
- Do the algebra. Many of you are groaning right now, but algebraic equations are a perfect example of the connections being made during this stage. Children will begin to learn that if A+B=C and D+E=C, then it must follow that A+B=D+E. The connections occur as often in everyday life as they do in math, science, and logic. Learning the dreaded algebraic formulas truly does help growing minds process the connection and balance in other areas.
- Explore inferences. A paragraph that discusses “steam rising from wet pavement as the clouds parted, allowing the hot summer sun to beat down unhindered” might indicate a summer storm has just blown through. The storm itself is not clearly described, but one can make inferences from the information given. Exploring inferences not only helps children improve their reading comprehension, it also helps them explore clues around them in life.
- Pull the tidbits together. In previous years, you taught your child facts about the American and French revolutions. Now it is time to show how events happening on one side of the Atlantic Ocean actually connected to and even impacted events occurring on the opposite side. This is true not only across history, but also in the ways science, history, mathematics, and life in general have coincided through the centuries.
The key to this stage is teaching your child how to look beyond facts and learn to make connections, seeing how those facts relate.
Stage 4: Learning to Reason
Before you know it, your preteen becomes a teenager and begins to see how the facts he learned in those exciting early years come together to form more than just an interesting web of connected events. In the reasoning stage, typically centered in the high school years, your blossoming student explores the why behind all of the information he has learned thus far.
It is during these years that your child will begin to question things he has always known. He will try to establish his own foundation of beliefs and process why he thinks the way he does.
You can help your child learn to reason in several ways:
- Discuss everything. Ask open-ended questions intended to make your child think. Encourage him to process his opinion about controversial issues before you share your own thoughts. Read and discuss books together. Talk about Scripture passages. Discuss current events. Even something as simple as discussing the day can open doors for deeper reasoning.
- Explain everything. During the early stages of life, it is common to provide information or instructions without explanations. The reasoning stage is the time to change that habit. Even if you cannot explain something in the moment, encourage your child to come back for an explanation later. This process strengthens your relationship and helps your child learn to make decisions on his own as he sees the why behind your decision-making.
- Explore contradictory thought and worldview. A single-minded focus will eventually be challenged. So, go ahead and challenge it now, in the safety of these parent-guided reasoning years! Discuss and work through each thought and perspective, helping your child to come back to a solid belief that he can personally defend.
When your teaching methods coincide with the strengths of each learning stage, you strengthen your child’s enthusiasm for learning and equip them to learn well.