How Much Academic Education Does Your Young Child Need?

When I evaluate 5-year-olds to see if they are ready for kindergarten, I am often asked just how much formal academics is necessary for young children
03/05/2013 12:40 pm ET Updated May 05, 2013

When I evaluate 5-year-olds to see if they are ready for kindergarten, I am often asked just how much formal academics is necessary for young children. This question indicates to me that these are parents who really need help understanding children and their developmental needs. While it is exciting to tell others that a young child is reading words or adding numbers, there is so much more learning that takes place that has little to do with skills that most children will develop by the end of second grade.

As soon as a child is born, he or she is on a learning track: understanding spatial relationships as he learns to crawl and feed himself; knowing how to meander around toys as he experiments with play objects; knowing how to ask for help; learning to interact with others and socialize while getting his needs met... and hundreds of other things that can be found in most books on child development.

When I was a mother of young children, I needed communication and direction from others whom I respected about what I still believe is the most important job in the world -- educating little ones. Like my peers, we wanted to make sure we could help them be successful in life. As a grandmother of young children, I find myself still wondering how I can enrich my grandchildren's lives in different ways. What I have learned is that children let us know what their needs are as they get ready for kindergarten or as they prepare for middle or high school. I believe that it is our responsibility to learn to take those cues from the children.

Last week, my 5- year-old grandson told me that he had a terrible thing happen at school. One of the boys came over and wrecked the volcano that he and three other children were building in the sandbox. When I asked him what they did about the volcano, he told me that they just built it again after the teacher told the mischievous boy not to do that again. He seemed so interested in the fact they had created this "volcano" that I asked him what he knew about them. He proceeded to tell me that they had something called lava that was hot, and the lava erupted from the volcano. After being sure that he understood what the word "erupt" meant, he went on to tell me that many volcanoes were found in Hawaii, but he had never seen one. Having had just bought a birthday gift at a nearby teacher's store, I recalled seeing a "volcano making kit" there.

I asked him if he thought he might like to make a volcano that erupted, and said that it could only be done with an adult. His response was animated and very excited. I went the next day to buy the kit, and needless to say, he was thrilled when his daddy told him they would make it together. I never would have known he was interested in the subject of volcanoes had he not mentioned it, but I used that interest as an opportunity.

If a child loves animals, take him to the zoo and discuss his favorite ones. If he loves fish, take him to the aquarium to see some fish and even touch them if the opportunity arises. If he loves sports, let him join a team. If he loves music, play beautiful songs for him to learn or just listen to, or even go to a musical children's play if it is appropriate. Get books to read or picture books to discuss, but keep the dialogue going. Learn to listen and you will be pleasantly surprised. Give your child a voice so that he can learn to listen to others because he feels heard.

Learning about things doesn't need to be expensive or complicated; it simply has to be about what a child has an interest. That is the trick; take your cues from your children. Don't worry about making them top in their class. Show an interest in where your child's curiosities lie, and I guarantee he will respond with curiosity and a love for learning. Academic learning is all around. You simply need to approach it!