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The most important thing for preschool kids.

Thumbing through a parenting magazine recently, I was surprised by the number of ads for early learning centres promising kids a head start in their academic achievements. You can have them reading and writing before they even start school. The ads promise to put them on course to be high achievers by the time they don their first oversized schoolbag.

Looking at my toddler, I’m pretty sure he is going to be bang on average when it comes to academics. And so long as he does his best, I’m kind of okay with that.

"I'm kind of okay with that." Image: iStock.

I’d rather he can master flying down a dirt road on his balance bike than be able to count to twenty (which is a good thing, because we have barely made it to ten). His thirst is for physical experiences, not knowledge in the traditional sense of letters and numbers. This is hardly surprising given his adrenaline-junkie of a father.

It’s a mental tug of war for parents. Do you give kids that head start that will allow them to excel in an increasingly competitive world? Or do you allow small children the space to play, act out and be themselves in the limited time they have before they hit the classroom?

Recent research suggest the latter is more useful in the early years and it's best to allow learning to happen organically through play. According to research from Angela Hanscom, a paediatric occuptional therapist based in New England, the best way for pre-school children to learn is through unstructured physical activity. This is a far better tactic than asking them to absorb concepts that their brains aren’t ready for.

They learn through unstructured activities. Image: iStock.
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In fact, in the US at least, pre-school is becoming overly structured. There's less and less time when children can get outside and run around without limitations. The negative effect of this book based learning, according to research, is that children are less able to socialise. They are even less agile than the kids of previous generations.

Hanscom’s research found that it is important for preschoolers to have a vast range of “whole-body” experiences every day so that they can build their bodies and minds. The best way to do this is to get them outdoors and let their senses run wild. Challenge them with physical activities performed on uneven and diverse terrain.

The importance of learning through play means that children are less likely to be clumsy and they develop better control of their emotions. It is play, not words and numbers in books, that teaches them good social skills and triggers better problem solving abilities.

We don't need them to sit still all the time. Image: iStock.

In fact, not forcing kids to sit still early on drives them to be better learners when the time is right. Another report from the US’s Alliance for Childhood states that children learn best through “hands on experience, the natural world and engaging, caring adults”. Play in the right environments helps them understand the symbols and language. This forms the foundation of book-based learning as they grow older.

My son has some friends who are desperate to learn to read and will have mastered the ability long before they walk through the doors of a school through their sheer enthusiasm.  But it’s encouraging to know that if he would rather roll around in the sandpit or spend the afternoon trying to catch a butterfly, he won’t necessarily be far behind his peers. In fact, he might even end up ahead.

How much time for free play do your kids have?

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