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What Should a Four Year Old Know?

Posted by homeschoolmentormom on February 13, 2010

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         I have been disturbed by the trend in homepreschool circles to push young children into early academics.  So many parents have fallen for the public school’s curriculum push down and believe that they must force feed their preschoolers academic “facts” to get them “ready for Kindergarten”.  Somewhere they have found a list of skills that “every four-year old should know,” and with the best of intentions, they diligently teach this list to their preschoolers…turning life into a list.  While seeking the “good” for their children, they overlook the “best”:   The things their children really need:  Relationships.  Routine.  Readiness.  Reading Aloud.  Imagination.  Play.  And most of all, learning about God.

        Here is one of my favorite articles about what preschoolers should be learning.   Note that embedded in this post from Magical Childhood, is a link to World Book’s Scope and Sequence (a traditional “list” of what children “should” know).  Take a look at it; I think you’ll be surprised. 

      What should a 4 year old know? 

          By Alicia Bayer of Magical Childhood (used with permission.) 

I was on a parenting bulletin board recently and read a post by a mother who was worried that her 4 1/2 year old did not know enough. “What should a 4 year old know?” she asked.1.  She should know that she is loved wholly and unconditionally, all of the time.  

Most of the answers left me not only saddened but pretty soundly annoyed. One mom posted a laundry list of all of the things her son knew. Counting to 100, planets, how to write his first and last name, and on and on. Others chimed in with how much more their children already knew, some who were only 3. A few posted URL’s to lists of what each age should know. The fewest yet said that each child develops at his own pace and not to worry.

It bothered me greatly to see these mothers responding to a worried mom by adding to her concern, with lists of all the things their children could do that hers couldn’t. We are such a competitive culture that even our preschoolers have become trophies and bragging rights. Childhood shouldn’t be a race.

So here, I offer my list of what a 4 year old should know.

1.  He should know that he is safe and he should know how to keep himself safe in public, with others, and in varied situations. He should know that he can trust his instincts about people and that he never has to do something that doesn’t feel right, no matter who is asking. He should know his personal rights and that his family will back them up.  

2.  She should know how to laugh, act silly, be goofy and use her imagination. She should know that it is always okay to paint the sky orange and give cats 6 legs.  

3.  He should know his own interests and be encouraged to follow them. If he could care less about learning his numbers, his parents should realize he’ll learn them accidentally soon enough and let him immerse himself instead in rocket ships, drawing, dinosaurs or playing in the mud.  

4.  She should know that the world is magical and that so is she. She should know that she’s wonderful, brilliant, creative, compassionate and marvelous. She should know that it’s just as worthy to spend the day outside making daisy chains, mud pies and fairy houses as it is to practice phonics. Scratch that– way more worthy.  

But more important, here’s what parents need to know.  

1.  That every child learns to walk, talk, read and do algebra at his own pace and that it will have no bearing on how well he walks, talks, reads or does algebra.  

2.  That the single biggest predictor of high academic achievement and high ACT scores is reading to children. Not flash cards, not workbooks, not fancy preschools, not blinking toys or computers, but mom or dad taking the time every day or night (or both!) to sit and read them wonderful books.  

3.  That being the smartest or most accomplished kid in class has never had any bearing on being the happiest. We are so caught up in trying to give our children “advantages” that we’re giving them lives as multi-tasked and stressful as ours. One of the biggest advantages we can give our children is a simple, carefree childhood.  

4.  That our children deserve to be surrounded by books, nature, art supplies and the freedom to explore them. Most of us could get rid of 90% of our children’s toys and they wouldn’t be missed, but some things are important– building toys like legos and blocks, creative toys like all types of art materials (good stuff), musical instruments (real ones and multicultural ones), dress up clothes and books, books, books. (Incidentally, much of this can be picked up quite cheaply at thrift shops.) They need to have the freedom to explore with these things too– to play with scoops of dried beans in the high chair (supervised, of course), to knead bread and make messes, to use paint and play dough and glitter at the kitchen table while we make supper even though it gets everywhere, to have a spot in the yard where it’s absolutely fine to dig up all the grass and make a mud pit.  

5.  That our children need more of us. We have become so good at saying that we need to take care of ourselves that some of us have used it as an excuse to have the rest of the world take care of our kids. Yes, we all need undisturbed baths, time with friends, sanity breaks and an occasional life outside of parenthood. But we live in a time when parenting magazines recommend trying to commit to 10 minutes a day with each child and scheduling one Saturday a month as family day. That’s not okay! Our children don’t need Nintendos, computers, after school activities, ballet lessons, play groups and soccer practice nearly as much as they need US. 

They need fathers who sit and listen to their days, mothers who join in and make crafts with them, parents who take the time to read them stories and act like idiots with them. They need us to take walks with them and not mind the .1 MPH pace of a toddler on a spring night. They deserve to help us make supper even though it takes twice as long and makes it twice as much work. They deserve to know that they’re a priority for us and that we truly love to be with them.  

And now back to those 4 year old skills lists…..http://www.worldbook.com/wb/Students?curriculum
Since we homeschool, I occasionally print out the lists and check to see if there’s anything glaringly absent in what my kids know. So far there hasn’t been, but I get ideas sometimes for subjects to think up games about or books to check out from the library. Whether you homeschool or not, the lists can be useful to see what kids typically learn each year and can be reassuring that they really are doing fine.

I know it’s human nature to want to know how our children compare to others and to want to make sure we’re doing all we can for them. Here is a list of what children are typically taught or should know by the end of each year of school, starting with preschool:

If there are areas where it seems your child is lacking, realize that it’s not an indication of failure for either you or your child. You just haven’t happened to cover that. Kids will learn whatever they’re exposed to, and the idea that they all need to know these 15 things at this precise age is rather silly. Still, if you want him to have those subjects covered then just work it into life and play with the subject and he’ll naturally pick it up. Count to 60 when you’re mixing a cake and he’ll pick up his numbers. Get fun books from the library about space or the alphabet. Experiment with everything from backyard snow to celery stalks in food coloring. It’ll all happen naturally, with much more fun and much less pressure.

My favorite advice about preschoolers is on this site though:

What does a 4 year old need? 

Much less than we realize, and much more.

       Visit Magical Childhood at http://www.magicalchildhood.com/index.htm .

(Thanks, Alicia!)


8 Responses to “What Should a Four Year Old Know?”

  1. Erin J said

    I must say Susan that I agree with your 4 R’s philosophy on Preschoolers but I also am a believer in exposer to academics early on. Not in a must do set curriculum type of way. I am more of a natural learner type of mom. I like to learn through literature. If we do a read aloud on Brown Bear, Brown Bear I might do some coloring sheets or lessons on animals or colors. We might talk about the sounds the animals make or where we might find them in nature. But to sit them down with a workbook for each subject for 4hrs a day is just not ideal for me. I am one of those mom’s whose children do things at earlier ages than most but I think it more due to my 1st grader sharing her learning with her Preschool brother rather than me deliberately making a lesson of it.

    For instance my 1st grader was doing her math facts and she was learning them with a song. She turned around and played school in her room with her brother and taught him the song as a game. So now he can recite his math facts. But that doesn’t mean he has the slightest clue what any of it means. But he just wants to be like his older sibling. Learning does not have to be on purpose. But if the child wants to learn you should teach them.

    If they are not interested in reading till 5 I don’t think they will read any different than the child who learned at 3. For most there is an evening out point where the late bloomers and the early starters can’t be told apart.

    • I think you misunderstood me. I believe there is a huge difference between “exposure” and “pushing”. It is the “pushing” that alarms me. Any loving parent who reads to their children and engages them in conversation will naturally expose them to “academic” concepts (colors, numbers, letters, etc.) After all, they are all around us.
      I think the key is watching our children for signs of readiness, interest, and natural learning, so that we can find the balance. We don’t want to push, but we don’t want to hold them back, either.
      When you do your “lessons” just follow your child’s lead. If s/he is enjoying the activity, and is capable, then great! But when the focus of preschool life becomes academics (while overlooking other, more important activities such as play, art, music, and reading aloud), or when children become resistant or burnt out, then it it time to back off.
      That is one reason we do so much “teaching” through games, play, manipulatives, felt-board activities, etc.
      You might enjoy reading my tabbed pages about readiness.

      • Erin J said

        Thanks Susan. I think I understand your point of view more now. I will look into your tabs and read more on your opinion on readiness. I think what it was for me is that in the same way you have been seeing parents encourage Mothers to push there young children I have been experience parents who seem to be forcefully delaying academics when the signs are there. I just didn’t understand why when some parent post what to use for phonics some say well don’t teachit they are too young. I think what they parent is trying to do is what most of do is get the information ready for when they truly on the path to hitting that milestone. On occasion you get a parent that actually thinks they have to be doing these things but I think for some they just want to be ready when the time comes because they are nervous of the task of being in charge of there childs education.

  2. Melissa said

    Great post!!!

  3. simplysonita said

    Love this post! We are going to be homeschooling next year. One of the main reasons is because my son is “behind” in language arts and being pushed and forced, I don’t want it to cause him to hate reading/writing, and he’s “above” in math, so getting bored with doing worksheets over and over on things he already knows.

    Each kid is so different. That’s what’s so great about homeschooling, I can “encourage” my son in reading/writing but not force him and he can take the lead in math and learn faster than his public school peers who are forced to be on level but not exceed the level they are “supposed” to be on.

    I’m so excited I can’t WAIT to homeschool next year!

    • You are so wise! You’ve already learned something that takes many homeschoolers years to learn: That one of the greatest advantages to homeschooling is the ability we have to individualize the curriculum!
      I’m excited about your decision, and know you’re going to have a great year!

  4. Irene said

    the article bring tears to my eyes, very well said. i bought some work books for my 20 month old, i am not going to let her do it at 2 year old now, rather, i should be playing with her and spending lots of quality time with her.
    yes, of all things she should know, she must know that she is loved whole heartedly and unconditionally.

    • Irene,
      I’m so glad the article was a help to you, and I’m so glad you are backing off the worksheets. Be sure to read the tabs on the 4 R’s; you can provide everything your daughter needs right now through relationship, routine, reading aloud, and waiting for readiness!
      If you are enjoying my blog, please add my button to yours!
      God bless,

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