Early-childhood and elementary school programs reflect a diverse set of commitments about what children ought to learn, and about how they ought to do so.
Some focus on academic preparation and advancement, with extra attention to reading and mathematics. Some emphasize social-emotional development and community values. Others tout their language classes, or their music program, or the opportunities for children to engage in extended projects of their choosing. Some praise structure and discipline; some prize autonomy and play.
Alongside this profusion of options is a rich diet of advice: parenting books, articles, Facebook groups, and friends who swear by one approach or another. For the most part, though, these conversations miss an important question: not just what to learn and how to learn it, but when to do so. In other words, what should young children be learning while young? What's the argument for learning a particular skill sooner rather than later?
Yes, there are discussions about what's developmentally appropriate for children of different ages. And there are discussions about what's valuable to know at any age. But what, specifically, should a child learn now? Are there good reasons to teach reading in kindergarten rather than in 2nd grade, or to expose children to music as toddlers rather than teenagers? Why not wait until children are more mature, and better at engaging in structured study? Beyond the basic premise that we shouldn't teach children something before it's developmentally appropriate to do so, are there general principles that govern what's valuable to learn sooner rather than later? And might recognizing such principles transform the way we think about early-childhood education?
Of course, educators and curriculum developers ask themselves these questions all the time — they're the ones deciding what to teach, and how and when to go about doing so. Organizations like the National Association for the Education of Young Children, for example, have articulated principles of child development and learning, and different educational philosophies embody their own commitments. If we started from these general principles, though, rather than preconceived notions of what formal education ought to look like, might we arrive at very different views about the value of emphasizing social-emotional development versus geography, or music versus mathematics?
Below, I offer four guiding principles for resolving the "early" in early-childhood education — that is, for deciding what's worth learning sooner rather than later. These are not meant to be exhaustive, and I'm certainly not the first to suggest ideas along these lines. I offer them as a cognitive psychologist who studies learning, and as a parent who has thought about the question of when alongside the what and the how. I offer them to add fuel to ongoing conversations about whether we're teaching young children the right things.