What should our young kids do all day?

What do we do with our children?

Obviously we have to meet their basic needs. Food, water, clean diapers, sleep, shelter. I’d throw ‘secure relationships’ into that list, too. But what about when they aren’t eating, sleeping, or being cleaned? What do we do then?

There is a lot of emphasis lately on doing enriching things with our kids. We read with them, play with them, take them to toddler groups, enroll them in classes, arrange play dates, do crafts, schedule preschool lessons and so on. I can’t count how many times our health visitor has asked whether I take my boys to any play groups. Partly, I think we all want to give our kids a great start in life. I also suspect that many parents find community in groups and play dates, which keeps them going. I also firmly believe that in a culture that undervalues caregiving, we put pressure on ourselves to fill our time with activities and events of worth to our children. If it helps our children learn and grow, then that use of our time is valuable.

I’m not arguing against actively planning our children’s time. I read with my kids all the time. We do play dates. Crafts, not so much. Instead, I want to consider that when it comes to what our children do all day, less may actually be much more.

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A Secure, Quiet Early Childhood

I have seen a few blog posts about Charlotte Mason preschool curricula. They have many suggestions, and usually include a long list of living books for young children. But before I look at curriculum, reading lists or lessons for my preschoolers, let’s see what Charlotte Mason says about how we should spend our time with our young children.

With all the pressure to give our children a good education and adequate socialization, it’s good to remember that a mother’s first duty should be to provide a secure, quiet early childhood. For the first six years, children should have low-key schedules so they can just be and grow, and they should spend most of their waking hours outside enjoying the fresh air. (Charlotte Mason in Modern English, Home Education, p. 43)

How timeless is this statement? I have a hard time believing that it was written in 1886. Even 130 years ago, well before the advent of Pinterest, moms were under pressure to ‘do’. To socialize our kids and provide intellectual stimulation. To mold our kids into smart, nice adults. Remember, though, that Miss Mason didn’t believe kids were meant to be molded. Instead, she offers something simple, refreshing, and honoring to the child: security, quietness, and freedom to be and grow.

Miss Mason takes a stand against society’s insistence that parents need to entertain their children. Perpetual stimulation means our children will have no time or opportunity to take in the world around them, and to wonder and marvel at it. Radically, she argues that children need to be left to themselves, often.

A Counter-intuitive Childhood

Carting our kids around to activities takes time. A lot of them take money. Planning out lessons and actively teaching our preschoolers takes all sorts of mental resources. What if we took all of that energy and poured it into fiercely protecting our kids’ childhoods? What would this look like?

  • Instead of teaching your four year old the alphabet, you reflect on the signs that he has a secure attachment to you.
  • Instead of attending mommy and me yoga, you share a quiet day with a picnic in a field near your home.
  • Instead of watching TV, your child learns the glorious sensation of mud on his fingers.
  • Instead of feeling guilty that your child is playing alone, you are confident that she needs quiet times of solitude.

The modern world is a barrage of sensory input. There are a million things after our attention. Let’s help our young kids develop resilience towards this by giving them time to themselves (in safe places). If our kids are used to being entertained, we can gently stop. Yes, our children need us, but they need time and space to follow their interests, to play, and to explore the world. They need to hear themselves think! I love walking past the boys’ bedroom, and seeing N engrossed in a book or G repeatedly stacking blocks and knocking them over. They are focused, attentive, and deep in thought. They need these quiet moments to develop those skills.

This isn’t an archaic mindset. We need to stop believing the hype that ‘earlier is better’. If your child learns to read a bit later than his peers, he will catch up. Preschools heavy on the academics don’t really yield much learning. Child-initiated, play-based learning is widely accepted as best practice for nurseries and preschools around the world. We have to trust the research. We have to trust our kids.

What ‘Leaving Our Children to Themselves’ Is Not

We shouldn’t neglect our children. I’m not saying that, nor is Charlotte Mason. We should definitely read to our kids, schedule play dates, play together, and have fun. Crafting is not evil (although it probably isn’t my thing!). It also doesn’t mean that we let our kids run completely wild. Our children need parents who confidently enforce boundaries. This also isn’t lazy parenting. While there are a lot of benefits for parents whose children play independently (going to the bathroom on your own, maybe cooking dinner in relative peace, for example!), we are not idle. There is a balance to be struck between letting our children alone, and active, intentional parenting. Miss Mason refers to this concept as masterly inactivity, and this will be the topic of my next post in this series.

This post is part of my Charlotte Mason and the Early Years series.

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