When it comes to early childhood education, I am firmly in Charlotte Mason’s corner. (Along with John Holt, the Moores, and the Waldorf folks, for that matter.) There’s no need to rush into early academics; in fact, I think it’s a downright bad idea. Childhood is being shortened and children are being pushed into scholarly performance at ages ever more tender: six years old, five, four, even three. A Newsweek cover article asked recently, "Are kids getting pushed too fast, too soon?" The answer for many children in this country is emphatically yes. They’re being pushed into Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic when they ought to be playing Red Rover. A young child’s "curriculum" should be mud, paint, acorns, and dough.
I believe this with all my heart, and yet here I am with my third child catapulting into reading at preschool age. I didn’t teach Beanie to read. She, like her sisters, is growing up in a print-obsessed house. (Today a mover came to give me an estimate; he said he’d never seen anyone with so many books. Gulp. "But then," he added, looking around, "you don’t have much besides books, do you?") And like her sisters, Bean has cracked the code pretty much by herself.
We read some Bob Books together over the past year, because she wanted to—and ONLY when she wanted to. She cuddled up for hundreds of read-alouds with me, Scott, or one of her big sisters. She pored over the pages of Tintin and Scooby Doo. (Re the latter: there are few joys greater than reading a comic book your own daddy wrote.) Somewhere along the way, she put the sounds together and now she is reading, really reading. Yesterday she announced that she had read Green Eggs and Ham all by herself except for one word (could), which Rose helped her with.
I have been sitting back, not pushing, not even coaxing. When she asks me to listen to her read, I do, with delight, and I praise her triumphs lavishly. When she asks me to read to her, I say yes as often as I possibly can. But I don’t require her to practice reading; I don’t tell her to read. I believe this is very important. She is five years old. She has the rest of her life for books. At her age, life ought to be more about living stories than reading them.
Feeling as strongly as I do about the importance of delaying formal lessons until age six at the absolute earliest,* I’ve been in a bit of a quandary this past year about one aspect of Beanie’s development. She loves to draw and color, and during the past six or eight months she has been doing a fair amount of writing, too: captions for her pictures, notes to Daddy, lists of names, that sort of thing. And she has always done all this writing and drawing with the crayon or pencil gripped in her fist.
I have shown her a proper pencil grip, but I haven’t forced her to use it. She is comfortable with the fist grip and in fact gets panicky if you suggest she forego it for the finger grip—"I might ruin my picture!" she’ll say with horror. I have chosen not to worry about this, not to push, biding my time. First she was only three, then only four, now only five. But of course I cannot deny there’s been a nagging voice in my head urging me to correct her grip before the wrong way becomes a habit so firmly fixed it can only be broken with much distress.
On a friend’s advice I broke a box of crayons into small pieces, because if the writing instrument is small enough, you CAN’T grip it with your fist—only with your fingers. But nobody likes to use broken crayons, including Beanie. I tried small pieces of chalk, too, but then there was chalk dust everywhere and Wonderboy was writing on the walls and I think I got tired of chalk pretty quickly.
Recently I decided that I’d wait until our California move was behind us and we were nicely settled into our new home, and then I’d sit Beanie down and work with her on correcting her pencil grip. And still I was arguing with myself, because I knew that forcing her to hold the crayon "my" way would frustrate her, and did I mention she’s only five? And did I mention I don’t believe a five-year-old should be forced to endure penmanship lessons?
Turns out I needn’t have worried. A simple solution was sitting on my shelf all the time.
When did I buy the Handwriting Without Tears Stamp and See Screen? I don’t even remember. I think it’s been on the shelf quite a long time. I remember it seeing a lot of use in the first weeks after we got it, and then I probably cleaned it up (where "cleaned" means "scooped it up with eight hundred pieces of partially used paper and assorted coloring books and dumped it on an upstairs shelf where I wouldn’t have to deal with the mess") and forgot about it.
One of the kids found it yesterday. Basically, it’s a small Magna-Doodle. If you have the Handwriting Without Tears wooden letter blocks, you can press them on the screen to make the letters show up. We do have those blocks, somewhere. I don’t know where. I think the whole "stamp the letter shapes" thing is probably interesting to a kid once or twice, and then it gets old. BUT. The Stamp & See Screen has a small "pen" attached by a string. VERY small—the size of a broken crayon or piece of chalk. It serves the same purpose as the Crayola fragment: you can only write with it if you hold it with your fingers in a proper pencil grip.
And hello, it’s a Magna-Doodle (-type thing)! Which equals fun. (And also: sibling squabbles.) Beanie’s in heaven because I told everyone it belongs to HER. Ah, the bliss of ownership. She happily drew faces and wrote letters all day with the loveliest pencil grip you ever saw. Which is not to say that she won’t revert right back to her fist grip when she picks up a crayon tomorrow. But now she knows that she CAN write and draw nicely with the finger grip, and I can relax about the whole thing.
I thought I’d pass on the tip in case anyone else out there is stressing over a little fist grip. But I do want to clarify that I’m not recommending you sit your little one down with the whole HWT pre-K package and require handwriting practice. I know several moms who have successfully used the HWT program with older children, and if younger kids want to play with the letter blocks as toys, great. But let it be a "may" and not a "must"—fun instead of fuss.
*About the "no lessons until age six or seven" thing: with Jane, my oldest, that is not at all the approach I took. I was eager to dive into all sorts of learning & exploration with her, and we were doing loads of rabbit-trailing when she was four and five years old. It was all very delight-directed and I always backed off the instant I saw her interest waning, but still. As she has grown, with other little ones coming up behind her—and remember she’s only eleven now, still quite young—I have gained more understanding of what Charlotte Mason was advocating for in Home Education, the book in which she lays out a vision for "educating" the child under seven—a vision rich in nature study and wholesome play, but containing no academic studies of any kind.
UPDATE on Beanie’s pencil grip here.