In days of yore, when DD (now six) was a toddler, she began to read on her own. Unprompted. No flash cards and no pressure. She was 2 1/2 — about the same age I had been when I too began to read in even more distant days of yore.
My response to this — and DH’s response — was to take it in stride, and continue doing what we’d always done — enjoy reading together as a family. Because ultimately, it’s not a race for achievement, but a process where the love of learning is the guide.
Having been through the educational system myself, and as an educator, I don’t see the merits of academic pressure. Given my preference, letter grades would not exist, and would be replaced by narrative commentary on a student’s learning process and investment. Alternative schools often do this, but not all such schools are created equally, and ultimately (or so I’ve found), whatever school you choose for your child/ren, much depends on the school’s attitude toward exceptionality, and of course, on the teachers.
A number of families I know choose to homeschool. Truth be told, we’d love to as well. For now, that’s not on the table, so we’ve recently begun something new — child-led afterschooling.
What is afterschooling? Is it condensed homeschooling? Absolutely not. Nor is it homeschooling lite. Instead, it is an extension of a child’s learning in subjects of their choosing. For example, over the past few years, DD has developed intense interests in various topics, from DNA to dinosaurs. Whenever she has come to us with these interests, we’ve found appropriate library books or YouTube videos to support her learning. We’ve done so informally and based solely on her interest. Just as important, our response would be limited to one or two books or videos, so as not to overwhelm her and turn her off of her chosen topic. It is then up to her to ask for more information.
Afterschooling simply builds upon the child’s expressed interests in a more organized way, but without pressure. It can also follow the school’s guidance based on subjects where performance needs improvement.
Here’s how it usually works for us: When DD returns from school, she has a snack and decompresses from her day. Then, we sit and learn together. I give her a choice of books (often library books) based on her most recent interests, and off we go. Generally, this lasts no more than 30 minutes to ensure that she is not overloaded, and to keep her interest high. And if she’s not interested, we don’t push. Of course, despite the term ‘afterschooling’, there is no need to confine learning time to after school hours. Learning can happen anywhere and any time — the grocery store is a great place to explore math, for example. (Comparing unit prices, using fractions, deciding on how much produce to buy for recipes, etc.)
Other media can also be used. In DD’s recent report card, her progress in French was okay, but we were encouraged to expose her to more French at home. We ordered some French language materials for children in text, audio, and DVD format, and have begun listening to French/English learning songs in the car, and using more French at home. DD has really taken to a few of the audio CDs, and asks us to play them!
Afterschooling can also incorporate interdisciplinarity. For example, DD recently expressed interest in conjoined (Siamese) twins. She wanted to know how it happened and what it was like to live that way. Led by her fascination, we looked at age-appropriate internet materials. I explained the process by which the fertilized egg that was splitting into identical twins did not complete, leading to conjoined twins. We moved to the social side of things, watching a brief news item on young adult conjoined twins who had recently graduated from university. In 30 minutes, we’d covered some biology and social studies, and it didn’t feel like school. It was simply enjoyable.
The key here, in my view, is not to push, but to let the child pull. For example, if they’re not interested in biology, social studies, or ancient cultures in their own right, but find the Olympics fascinating, let that interest be a guide. Since the Olympics are a topic of current interest, here are some of the ways parents might elaborate:
- Athletics naturally links to training and discussion (however brief) of muscle fibres, and from there, to the mind-body connection, the nervous system, etc.
- The psychological aspects of athletic performance and motivation can be discussed.
- Teamwork is a topic stemming directly from the Olympics; how do athletic colleagues manage the emotions that come up around competition? What is good sportsmanship?
- You can also discuss the politics surrounding the games — international politics, how are locations chosen for the games? How do the Olympics relate to international diplomacy and media portrayals?
- And of course, Ancient Greece and the original Olympic games are also natural tie-ins.
And if you don’t know much about these topics (yet), don’t be discouraged. Family learning is immensely rewarding, and doesn’t need to be expensive. The internet (supervised, obviously) offers a wealth of information, including TEDTalks and TEDtalks for kids. Your local library is an obvious option, and may also offer free e-books, audio books, and language courses with login. (A listing of internet sites with free or nearly free e-books may be found here.) Even television can be a teacher when families watch educational shows together, and are available to answer children’s questions. (We love nature documentaries!)
I’ve left the most important questions for last:
Why bother afterschooling when your child already learns at school? My best answer is that schools can’t teach everything, and more importantly, learning is (or should be) enjoyable. If your child approaches you with questions, this is a learning and teaching opportunity. And it can be fun.
And why consider afterschooling for gifted kids? Because the chances are that the questions are already flying — you might as well explore them and dive deep into knowledge together.