Manifesto of Very Early Education (version 1)

Larry Sanger

I have been “pre-homeschooling” my two boys, H. (almost five years) and E. (seven months).  It has been an interesting journey.  I have picked a few very general principles, which I thought it might help me–and perhaps other parents in similar situations–to write down.  You might call this my credo, or manifesto.  Feedback and pointers are welcome.  If you want to disagree with a principle, and convince me otherwise, I’d love to have sources (such as books or essays) to convince me otherwise.

Basic principles

1. Very small children are capable of learning much more than most people realize.  When they do, they can benefit significantly for the rest of their lives.

2. In the coming generation, societal awareness and acceptance of very early learning might well change on a massive scale.  If it does, it will be because the Internet (I think of online videos of babies reading) makes it possible for people to bypass the institutions that, formerly, could make dissemination of information about this subject difficult.

3. Those who dogmatically insist that play, and play only, is the work of childhood sadly misunderstand the virtues of early learning.  Play might very well be the work of childhood–whatever that really means–but it is hardly inconsistent with significant early learning, which need not occupy much of your child’s “play” time.  Besides, done right, learning feels like play.

4. The education of very small children must be, above all, individualized. You must approach it with creativity, careful observation, and forethought, constantly adjusting what you do with your child.

5. Reading to children is the most important component of any early learning program.  Most of our academic knowledge can be gained from books.  Those who are in favor of copious reading by parents to children are not, therefore, wholly opposed to early learning.

6. Teaching young children can be viewed as a time-consuming, enjoyable hobby–probably the most rewarding and beneficial one you will ever have.  Your old hobbies and interests can take a back seat for a while.

7. Early exposure to facts and concepts, like early exposure to nursery rhymes and the language itself, makes them much easier to remember, relearn, and use later on.

8. Flashcards, like presentations, handheld apps and old-fashioned concept books that teach the same things, can help teach huge numbers of basic concepts to little children.  It is silly to dismiss them.

9. Your main task in the hobby of early education is to delight your child with learning.


10. As much as you can, try to take a cheerful and positive approach toward learning, at all ages.  Don’t treat learning as a chore; if you, the parent, approach it right, it can be lots of fun for the child.

11. Do not force a child to learn, especially in the earliest years.  If he resists, try another approach to the same subject, or change subjects.

12. More positively stated, seek out those subjects, books, educational videos, and other educational tools that especially appeal to your child.  There’s almost always something your child will be enthusiastic about.  If you always focus on those, he’ll be constantly learning and still not get tired of it.

Study habits

13. There is nothing wrong with trying to get a child to start on a regimen of learning of some kind (e.g., learning some subject, learning to read, a foreign language, music, etc.), but with little ones, it requires careful design and forethought, and your approach definitely should depend on the age of the child.

14. Babies are easy.  Most of them are happy to be exposed to anything new at any time.  So you can pretty easily make your own schedule.

15. With babies, be sure to stop a session when, or before, they start to look away from whatever you’re doing (book, video, whatever).

16. Preschoolers are harder to manage than babies.  At a certain age (around age two), they start having definite tastes and moods, and you must exercise all your powers of creativity, foresight, and patience–and sometimes, you must do some research or preparation in advance–if they are to continue to enjoy some subject.

17. You do not, in fact, have to adopt anything like a schedule, or attempt to inculcate many habits, in order to teach your child a lot.

18. If you do adopt a schedule, then you should always approach it flexibly.  If your child is tired, disengaged, wants to do something else, etc., do not insist on doing something just because it’s on the schedule.  Teach your child to tell you, “That’s enough,” or “I’m tired of this.”

19. Be ready to take breaks from any type of educational activity, lasting days, weeks, or even months, when it becomes clear that your child needs the break.

Reading to children

20. A fruitful way to think of early education is: reading a lot to your kids, much earlier than most people usually think of doing so.

21. Two of the best times to read to children are at mealtime and at bedtime.  This is because you have a “captive audience” and the children know that it’s time to sit still.

22. If your child does not seem to want to read anything, you probably have not tried the right books.  Especially past age two or so, children have definite tastes, and you must learn them if you want to read much to them.

23. But children do go through phases where, for a few months, they are simply “cool” to the idea of books.  That is fine; they are still game for other things.  Try again in a few weeks.

24. Classics are classics for a reason: they appeal to children.  Yours will not like all classics, but they will probably like them in a much higher proportion than they like the average library or bookstore book.

25. Easy versions of classics for older children often make excellent reading, and prepare children to appreciate the originals later on.

26. Get well acquainted with the kinds and subjects of books for children.  As there are age-appropriate books for children on almost any subject, especially after they are past the simplest picture books, there is no reason that you cannot introduce a child to almost any subject.

27. I prefer to buy books over checking them out of the library (though we do both).  This gives my little learners a greater interest due to the fact that we own the books, a resource to consult at will, and a sense of accomplishment as we look at bookcases filled with books we’ve read.

Early reading by children

28. Babies can learn to start reading.

29. Babies frequently like and even (when exposed to them appropriately) demand to be  shown videos, flashcards, and other tools that teach them to read.

30. Copious anecdotal evidence indicates that it is possible to start children learning to read at amazingly early age, and if you continue a gentle, positive program for a few years, they can be reading at amazingly high levels as preschoolers.

31. Parents who say that their children mysteriously “taught themselves” to read have frequently done things that, unbeknownst to them, taught their children to read.  It is possible to do similar things deliberately, and get the same results.

32. The ability to learn to read at an early age does not require high intelligence.

33. Expert criticism of early reading programs is based, ironically, in ignorance.  I have yet to encounter a single expert who is both critical of baby reading and has significant experience with the phenomenon.

34. There are several different methods of teaching little ones to read which can work.  If you don’t like videos, or they seem ineffective with your child, or if you don’t like making paper flashcards, you can try another approach.  Parents who have successfully taught their children to read early have frequently tried several approaches (not all at once, of course).

35. Many people with early readers read a lot to their children, while moving their finger under the words.  This should be the core of any method, whatever else is used.

36. If your child seems stuck at the word-memorization stage, try presenting words in groups, based on phonetic relationships.  You can effectively teach the rules of phonics, as I did to my son.  (I explain how in my essay on early reading.)

Principles about subjects

37. History is difficult to teach to very young children because they lack the concepts that enable them to understand, or care about, the stories that make up history.  The best way to introduce history (apart from systematically introducing historical concepts, e.g., with flashcards) is to read the easiest sorts of history picture books, which explain even the simplest concepts.

38. There is a remarkably large amount of basic information that very small children can be taught, and understand, about science.  Most science learning should be supplemented with “hands on” experimentation; there are many excellent books that have “basic” experiments that even preschoolers can appreciate.

39. However distasteful this may be to some educators, memorization of many math facts is key to true “math literacy.”  Some such memorization can begin in early childhood; however, one should not expect small children to be able to understand very much of mathematics from an early age.  They may catch on faster later, though.

40. Some people successfully teach children foreign languages at an early age.  It’s easy enough for children to learn their first language; at the same age, a second is not too hard.  It’s important to remember, however, that many of the methods we use with older students simply will not work with little ones.

41. It is a great idea to put maps on the walls, keep a $20 globe near the dinner table, and just randomly look at and talk about these resources.  A child can learn phenomenal amounts about geography just doing this.

42. Precocious ability in music and art can be encouraged, especially if the parents have a great deal of time and patience, but not guaranteed.  Precocious artistry is a different phenomenon from precocious reading and knowledge, which is something available to any child whose parents or caretakers have used appropriate methods.

When children reach school age

43. A lot of people are opposed to early education simply because early-educated children are different, and for some people, being different is bad–especially when it comes to education and the management of education.  If being part of the crowd is important to you, you probably should not engage in early education, because early-educated children do tend to stand out.

44. Probably, the best way to leverage the gains made in a successful early education program are in a highly individualized educational program–such as homeschooling.

45. While I intend to homeschool my children when they reach school age, I respect the constraints other families have that makes this impossible for them.

46. The mainstream track of mainstream schools typically lack resources to challenge and engage children who have been taught to read, and have otherwise learned a lot, in very early childhood.  Parents who are not homeschooling must coordinate carefully and thoughtfully with school districts, schools, and individual teachers, to ensure the best possible educational experience for their children.

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