School readiness: concrete experiences before abstract learning

Imagine this
Imagine you are holding a bowl filled with big red, ripe and juicy strawberries, the smell is deliciously sweet, you reach out your hand and you pick one.


Imagine waking up to the song of birds, cool fresh air and then being greeted by a little voice that says: “Good morning Mommy�? while she puts her warm little arms around your neck.

Now imagine the same scenarios, but instead of experiencing these moments you are handed a drawing of them. Not a photo, but a hand drawn image of a bowl of strawberries in black and white, or, a hand drawn image of a family hugging. It is not quite the same, is it? Yet these are the images we find in preschool worksheets – one dimensional, no smell, no taste, no sound and no touch experience whatsoever. It’s not quite the same experience, is it?

While recently visiting Barcelona, I stumbled upon a fresh produce market very early one morning. I was overtaken by awe, wonder, and excitement, and then… even a little bit of sadness. I was in awe and wonder about the hustle and bustle of the market– it was filled with happy active people eager to sell their goods; the way they displayed their goods, the colours, the smells, the sheer energy of the whole place was amazing! Even the way they engaged with their buyers was worth observing, and even educational! The early morning greetings, the banter, the hackling, and the on-the-job-coaching as one seller says to his fellow seller “say: take two�? and their laughter at the ingenuity of their sales pitch, was all experiences that made Barcelona a place I will never forget. And then in strong contrast to the experience above, an image of a person sitting in front of a computer, browsing the internet for usual day to day shopping items, flashed through my mind and I was overtaken by sadness. How did this happen? How did we allow two dimensional images to replace rich multi-sensory experiences that are daily within our reach? Have we become so afraid to live?

According to the Autism Society the prevalence of autism in children in the United States is increasing rapidly. Where one in 150 children was previously diagnosed with Autism in 2010, one in 68 children is now being diagnosed, making Autism the fastest growing developmental disability. And if you listen to conversations at children’s’ parties you will hear chatter mirroring the above mentioned statistics – numerous children between the ages of 3 and 9 are either on medication or receiving therapy, or both!

The colourful three-dimensional preschool years (concrete learning) are being replaced by black and white two dimensional worksheets (abstract learning) because so many teachers (unfortunately very often caring but unqualified preschool teachers) misunderstand the importance and educational value of concrete experiences and the invaluable social interactions that go with it.

Concrete experiences first
Every week a preschool child should learn something new about concrete or tangible everyday objects. They will learn what it is (language), what it does (science and maths), and what you can use it for (life skills). Once a child has experienced life -not looked at life in books or on screens (books and screens are wonderful add-ons to reinforce what has been experienced tangibly) then learning about faraway things and places (like dinosaurs) are wonderful. Real must come first. The more we remove children from what is real and prevent them from exploring life playfully, the more we cultivate a sub-specie. A sub-specie where children (and adults) feel disconnected, anxiety-ridden, worthless, isolated, lonely and confined to existing on line.  

Caution - The following factors can undermine the purpose of the preschool years:

  • Relying on workbooks and colouring books to please parents and prove what the child has done at school.
  • Teaching children to read and write, before the children have mastered the skill to listen (the first time) and hold a crayon properly.
  • Recommending an unhealthy number of compulsory extramural activities that evoke stress and the pressure to perform.
The preschool years are a marvellous opportunity for the child to discover the world he or she lives in so they know it and belong. The discovery should be hands-on and PLAYful and not WORKsheet-ful.  

South Africa’s beautiful weather gives us ample opportunity to play and experience things outdoors:

Connect. Touch. Smell. Taste it. Live life!

You might want to read more about school readiness and when it starts.