The preschool years are the most impressionable time in all childhood. The foundations laid here in discipline, music, and reading will set the stage for the future school years of your child.
Also, sending the child out into the world before they have even learned anything about self-control and self-confidence is dangerous, especially when schools, as such, inculcate peer pressure more for worse than for better.
First, the big one. I will get this out of the way at the beginning so that everything after this is understood in proper context. Screen time for preschoolers is not necessary. In fact, in case you need to be told, because I know some parents do, the child only has a screen because you allow it.
Screens in our house have been out of the way, only in the master bedroom for my children’s whole upbringing. In this way, first of all, there was never the temptation to have a screen on in the middle of the day, because it wasn’t in the main living area. But also, and because of that, screen time was (and is still) limited to the purposeful times that we set aside for that as entertainment.
Most of the time, (as in, almost always) we only allow screen time on Saturday, and then only for an hour or two. We also have a family movie night on the weekend. Other than that, screens are off and put away.
This leads to children who are imaginative, playful, adventurous, inquisitive, and are not jaded. They love to play outside and explore of their own volition. They love to pull out games, puzzles, and cards to play or books to read at any time during the day. And they never sit around saying, “I’m bored.”
Yes, I’m serious. So turn off the screens.
With classical education, a disciplined body is necessary, as concentration and attention to detail are very important to the arduous studies of Greek and Latin; and a slothful body leads to a slothful mind.
Discipline must be instilled during the preschool years. If you wait until your child is school age in order to expect obedience, you will be fighting a losing battle. Children will only rise to meet the level of your expectations and usually no further, so having proper expectations for children this age is essential.
Modern psychological thought on this says that young children are incapable of any discipline whatsoever. They can’t listen. They can’t sit still. They can’t be quiet. So don’t expect otherwise.
I have had more than enough compliments from strangers on the behavior of my children in public to say that, I know what children can do, and I know that it doesn’t take severity to do it; but it does take persistence and consistency.
(Note: this does not include children with disabilities or disorders. They are pretty individual when it comes to standards, and therefore, you have to trust your instincts without tending too much toward either leniency or strictness, but they can have expectations and they can be required to meet them. I can tell, for example, that when given the higher expectation, my three year old special needs daughter tries to rise to the standard of accepted behavior, even when it’s hard for her.)
Here are some examples of behavior standards, yes the child does transgress, but rarely:
1. Children over the age of two can sit still in a nice restaurant (the kind with cloth napkins), without being occupied by screens, and stay quiet by coloring or chatting with the adults for well over an hour. (I have been in a restaurant like this for over two hours with a two and four year old without them needing a break.)
2. Children over the age of two can sit relatively still (sometimes standing up) and silently look at books in a church pew for well over an hour. (Four of my children have lasted through masses over two-hours long at preschool age, without needing a break.)
3. Children age two to four can hold hands or sit in the cart without whining or crying, without a screen, and talk quietly with you as you shop.
4. Children over the age of four can follow directions, talk quietly, and stay near you in a store without being in a cart, without you holding their hand, and without being occupied by a screen.
5. Children over the age of three can go for an hour long or more hike on a trail without whining or complaining, and stay on the trail, following directions. (Under three, they are in a backpack carrier or stroller, or we go on a shorter hike.)
Know your children’s limitations and work up to these expectations if they are not very young. Let them know the rules and expectations beforehand and make sure that plenty of movement (running, if possible) is allowed beforehand and afterward. Remind them of the rules every time you are about to enter the church, store, or restaurant. The reward for good behavior is a happy parent and a happy child, but physical rewards given occasionally are acceptable.
If they are getting antsy in the restaurant or church pew, they get to get up and go for a walk outside briefly, with the ability to run ahead and back to you if possible, but they should be able to sit there for at least thirty to forty-five minutes without this.
Do not make this seem like a reward for “bad” behavior. Just get up and say, “Let’s go outside for a bit.” Be proactive, discreet, and matter of fact about it. Don’t wait until a meltdown happens to take a break if the child needs it.
If you train your child such, by the age of six, they should be able to sit still in school for the duration of lessons, occasionally allowed to stand if they seem restless, and follow all directions. This will not be possible if you wait to start proper discipline until age six.
If you wish your child to be musically inclined, the years from birth to age six are the most critical years in music training. The way the brain is forming at this age lends to musical abilities that are either impossible or difficult to learn past this point.
Children can learn perfect pitch during this critical period. Perfect pitch means being able to name a note by hearing it and/or being able to replicate a pitch without hearing it first (just having the memory of it). Learning true perfect pitch past this time is impossible, according to music teachers.
Understanding rhythm and pitch in general, as well as matching pitch are also formed best during this age, although these can be learned later, but will be much more difficult.
The best way to facilitate music training is simply by listening to good music, and often: orchestral, Gregorian chant, classical guitar, violin concertos, Renaissance madrigals (like the King’s Singers), traditional folk music (like Loreena McKennitt or King’s Singers), instrumental movie soundtracks (like Star Wars, Interstellar, The Lord of the Rings, or Titanic), or operatic. Vary what you listen to, but also repeat the exposure to the same songs often enough to the point where your child (and you) can hum or sing them.
(Technically, listening to nursery rhymes, children’s songs, pop music, church music, and Christmas songs will work too, as I developed perfect pitch as a child and that is all I ever listened to, but I don’t advocate listening to that exclusively or even more often than the music I referred to above, since this is a classical education, not a modern one.)
Children during their preschool years need multiple exposures to words, many thousands of words, in order to increase their vocabulary, and to set the foundation for learning to read.
Reading only occasionally or reading only preschool-level material is not enough, and children will struggle in school if this is all they receive during this critical period. As I mention in my article on teaching phonics, reading aloud to your child should be considered part of their phonics program and should start as early as possible and happen as often as possible.
Reading can happen during playtime, before naps, during meals, before bed or anytime the child will let you read without ripping or flipping the pages. They do not have to be on your lap (although snuggles are always welcome). The child can soak up the book (and its vocabulary) while playing quietly on the floor or coloring quietly at the table.
Read to your preschoolers as much as possible and don’t be afraid of including books that are well above their reading level. For example, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings out loud at bedtime to my children when they were only 2, 4, and 6 years old and they all loved it. My children, when pre-school age, have heard everything from Laura Ingalls Wilder to H.G. Wells.
As I have said before: This is good family time, but more importantly, all this exposure to words, especially words they don’t normally hear in conversation will help them to identify those words when they sound them out in phonics.
It is really hard to sound out words like “bough” or “draught” for example, when you have never actually heard the word spoken, or have only heard it spoken a few times. Children need many, many exposures to words in order to recognize them when learning to read, so make reading aloud an essential part of your preschool.
Age to start kindergarten
Historically, children would start school at about age seven. Before that time, they were sometimes taught their letters, numbers, and stories and poems—like fairy tales and nursery rhymes—by their mother (or nurse or nanny). Everything that a child needs to know in order to start first grade can be taught in the home by the mother, even if you plan on sending your child to school.
Preschool is not formal education, though. It should be structured, yet very forgiving—a no pressure environment where ideas are presented in an organized manner, but few expectations are placed on the child.
I hold my children off on formal education as long as possible. In fact, with one of my children, I decided to start his official school in the middle of the year, because, while I felt he was too immature and unready for school at the beginning of the year, he became ready midyear, and I didn’t want him to have to wait.
With another child, I actually started her at first grade at six, but decided to hold her back and teach that as a kindergarten year instead, because she just didn’t seem to be progressing fast enough through phonics and math to be at a first grade level.
These were my two summer babies, and it’s harder to make a good judgement on grade level with children born in the summer. I prefer to err on the side of kindergarten at age six for this set (finishing before the seventh birthday the next summer), but they are usually ready to start formal education by five and a half which ends up being midway through the school year.
It’s a hard call to make whether to start a just-turned-five year old on school. Most of the children I knew growing up that had a summer birthday were the youngest in the class, thereby showing that most parents didn’t hold their children back, but instead sent them to kindergarten right away after their fifth birthday. But, these children were also the ones who didn’t do as well in school, probably because they started when they were too young and immature.
There are many states now, though, where children are required to start school at the age of five. If you are unlucky enough to live in one of these states, and have a summer birthday child, lower your expectations for kindergarten in order not to frustrate both yourself and the child.
This is part of a series on Preschool. Links will be added as the articles are posted.
- Preschool: The Foundational Period (you’re here!)
- Preschool: Ages 2-3
- Preschool: Pre-K, ages 3-4
- Preschool: Jr. Kindergarten or K-4, ages 4-5
If you like what you’re reading, share this with a friend, and don’t forget to subscribe so that you don’t miss my next post on exactly what to do for ages 2-3! As always, love your children, give them a Fundamentally Classical education, and don’t forget your preschoolers.