Monday, June 25, 2012

Classical Education: Birth to Three

Last week, I posted a brief intro on classical education according to The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. Since we (the blog authors) all have very young kids, I'd like to summarize their recommendations for the first three years (pp. 27-30). Perhaps I'll do another follow-up with their advice for 4-5-year-old preschoolers.

"When you educate your child at home, you don't have to draw a line between parenting and teaching" (p. 26). The bottom line is to immerse your child in language from birth, though the authors share specific ideas for preparing children to learn reading, writing, and math.

Reading Preparation: "Prereading preparation works. Susan [the coauthor daughter] was reading on a fifth-grade level in kindergarten... If you create a language-rich home, limit TV and videos, and then teach systematic phonics, you will produce readers."
  • TALK: Talk constantly. Explain what you're doing and why. "This sort of constant chatter lays a verbal foundation in your child's mind. She's learning that words are used to plan, to think, to explain; she's figuring out how the English language organizes words into phrases, clauses, and complete sentences."
  • READ: Read all the time. Start with sturdy books ("a torn book or two is a small price to pay for literacy"). Read picture books, pointing to the words with your finger, then read them again and again. "Repetition builds literacy." Read longer books out loud with baby playing nearby. 
    • After reading together, ask your child questions about the story. "What did the gingerbread boy do when the old woman tried to eat him? When the dog got to the top of the tree at the end of Go, Dog, Go, what did they find? What happened after Bananas Gorilla stole all the bananas?"
    • Record yourself reading, singing, reciting, and telling stories for the child to listen over and over.
      • To this day, I remember the bedtime tape that my parents made for us to listen to as we fell asleep. I can quote those stories and poems with the same inflections that my parents told them (Mom's Puffin, Put a Poem in Your Pocket, Frog and Toad stories, Dad doing all sorts of A.A. Milne poems...).
  • ALPHABET: Teach your child the alphabet as soon as she starts speaking. Sing the alphabet song, read alphabet books, put the letters up on the wall. Teach her the sounds of the letters just as you teach the sounds of the animals. "Pigs say oink; dogs say woof; B says b, b, b.
    • Start with the sounds of the consonants. "Tell her that b is the sound at the beginning of bat, ball, and Ben; say, 'T, t, tickle' and 'M, m, mommy' and 'C, c, cat.'"
    • "Then tell her that the vowels are named A, E, I, O, and U. Sing, 'Old McDonald had a farm, A, E, I, O, U.'" Emphasize that each vowel has a sound just as each animal makes a sound, and teach only the short sounds of the vowels at first: "A as in at," "E as in egg," etc.

Writing Preparation: "Continual drawing and making counterclockwise circles will prepare the preschooler for kindergarten writing."
  • Teach your child to hold the pencil correctly from the beginning. Draw lots of circles and loops in a counterclockwise direction, as most printed letters use counterclockwise circles. "Make snowmen, Slinkies, smoke from a train, car wheels, and so forth counterclockwise."
  • Before a young child can hold a pencil, let her form numbers, letters, and circles without one. If she wants to use one, "she can use chalk on a big chalkboard or a crayon or pencil on large sheets of paper. Regular-diameter short pencils are often easier for small fingers than fat 'preschool' pencils."
  • Create basic dot-to-dots for your three-year-old (a house, a smiley face) using several big dots. Then guide the child's crayon from one dot to another to see the picture emerge.

Math Preparation: "Start to make your child 'mathematically literate' in the toddler years. Just as you read to the toddler, surrounding her with language until she understood that printed words on a page carried meaning, you need to expose her to mathematical processes and language continually. Only then will she understand that mathematical symbols carry meaning."
  • Make numbers a part of everyday life. "Start with counting: fingers, toes, eyes, and ears; toys and treasures; rocks and sticks. Play hide-and-seek, counting to five and then to ten, fifteen, or twenty together. Count by twos, fives, and tens before shouting, 'Coming, ready or not!' Play spaceship in cardboard boxes, and count backward to takeoff."
    • Each night, we count with Daniel before turning off the lamp. We started by counting to three, and eventually he started saying it himself. So we gradually added numbers, and now at 21 months, he can count to ten by himself! Maybe that's not unusual, I'm just constantly impressed by how these little guys can learn.
  • Read number books together.
  • Once the child is comfortable counting, start working on simple math sums (usually during the K-4 and K-5 years).

As a general preschool learning resource, the authors recommend June R. Oberlander's Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready, "a birth-to-age-5 activity book that provides a new, developmentally appropriate activity for each week of life. Week 1 begins with exercising the newborn's arms and legs; age 5, week 52, ends with learning to pack an overnight bag. In between, Oberlander (a kindergarten teacher) covers everything from playing peekaboo and learning "in" and "out" through tying shoes, memorizing telephone numbers, bouncing balls, and singing the alphabet while making a different body movement for each letter. It's a complete preschool in one volume. You may not feel you need this resource, but by combining the prereading instruction of the Oberlander book with lots of active play, you'll have the at-home equivalent of an excellent preschool program."
  • I found an online pdf of this book here if you'd like to peruse.

You'll probably be pleased to see that you do some of this preschooling naturally at your house, but if you're an idea-stealer like me, you're always happy for some good ones!

Got more to share?


  1. What great resources. I love the idea of constantly talking about what we are doing in the kitchen, in the car, etc. even before baby understands. (Of course it helps keep me sane too if he's bawling in the back seat to say calmly, "Peter, we're passing the big red sign now by the gas station. That means we're almost to the store! I'm pressing the brake pedal with my foot so the car will slow down. Now I look both ways to see if any other cars are coming. I'm waiting for the blue truck to cross the intersection...")

    I think the most important thing, and it seems like the authors emphasize it, is not underestimating how much our kids can learn at a very young age. Like these parents:
    or these ones:

    Okay... so those kids might be "geniuses," but I'm sure they would have watched cartoons all day if their parents had let them. I think probably every child could be genius at something.

    But I guess I can say more on the subject when my own son is at least eating solid foods. :)

  2. Also, imagination cultivation! You must be queen of this Nonie, since I've never seen an imagination quite like Sammy's.

    Peter was crying hard as we were stuck in a traffic jam the other week and I ran out of real things to say to calm him down. So then we decided to imagine our car was a magic carpet, and I talked about how we were rising up above all the other cars and flying away to the forest. Even I got caught up in the story as we flew over Alaska and said hello to the polar bears (I guess it must have been a hot day in the car...) I need to talk imaginatively with him more often.

  3. Nonie I love this post! I have been thinking about ways to teach my two boys but through play and fun interactions. I don't think we can ever teach our children too much. I love reading this blog and all of the fabulous idea's that you and the other Marshall women have come up with and choose to share. It helps me to make my life more rich and meaningful and has persauded me on other occasions to think differently and in my mind aim for improvement. Thanks!

  4. I did recently get a recommendation that I might pass along it is a book called the "Read Aloud Handbook" by Jim Trelease. It discusses the importance of reading aloud and its impact of early learning and helping a child to develop a love a reading and literacy. One thing I like best is a section dedicated to suggestions of books to share with your child at different stages of their learning.