Early Childhood Education, Dollars, and Sense

I am delighted that the folks in Washington are thinking of educating very young children. I anticipate pilot programs, multi-million dollar projects, and oodles of red tape, followed by reports on hard-to-quantify improvements. Do we really need all that to teach tots to have a bigger vocabulary and enjoy music, art, flowers, and all of the rest of the wonderful world that surrounds them and us? What about informal homeschooling programs for toddlers?

More than half a century ago, even before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, my friends and I decided to form a playgroup. Each morning, a different mother hosted our three-year-olds for a few hours in her home, consisting in this case of large, old-fashioned apartments in a had-been upscale New York City neighborhood. Each mother had her specialty—one mom was a trained kindergarten teacher, another a professional dancer, and I was a budding writer. However, we did not actually need these skills to provide the group with interesting activities.

Though there were no official evaluation forms, our “school” was a success. The children formed loyal, sometimes lifelong friendships, did well when they entered public school and all became successful professionals. It was hard work, and at times it was difficult for my son to share his mom and his toys with four other children.

Our motives in forming our playgroup had been a bit selfish. We all had professional ambitions, and we did like to have four mornings a week with uninterrupted time. For us, the school represented a bridge to a post-intense-motherhood career. The playgroup also provided me with lifelong friends. This Saturday I am taking Doris, the kindergarten teacher, out for her birthday lunch.

A playgroup is not the only way to enrich childhood. Young children do not have to be taught by professionally-trained adults. Child-loving adults have always transmitted vocabulary and life-skills to the next generation. Grandparents are prime candidates. They often have more patience and free time than their own harassed, hardworking children.

It is very easy to come up with suitable activities for small children that both teach and educate. You may come up with your own activities. It is important to have a regular plan. Baking teaches arithmetic (3 eggs, 4 tablespoons of sugar or 8 teaspoons…how many cookies does each member of the family get, if you have a total of 13 cookies?); making cards to celebrate our endless holidays teaches lettering and painting; and telling them a story or having them tell one fires the imagination.

But books are best. Most of us remember one or more picture books that filled us with joy eons ago. These and others can be found at your library, which also has storytelling hours.

And, you don’t have to leave your house to get free books. It is of great interest that today, when the death knell seems to have sounded for print books, the Internet helps us obtain free print books. A rapid search of the Internet reveals sources for free books for all ages.

E-books and digital books on the Internet are easy to obtain. There are dozens of sites that let you download e-books or interact with them on your computer. Here are a few suggestions, classified according to type:

Downloadable e-books, and downloadable other file formats

Website Books – for reading and interacting on the web

App Books – for iPhone, iPad, and other tablet devices

Free Book Mailing Services

  • Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation mails one free book a month to any Tennessee child under five.
  • PJLibrary (PJ stands for pajama because they are meant to be read at night) sends out free books with a Jewish theme. These lovingly illustrated books don’t proselytize and promote universally accepted ethical principles.

**A note on file formats and e-reader device compatibility, especially for the iPad, Kindle, and Nook: With the exception of Kindle and Nook-specific file formats, all of these can be transferred to a regular e-reader or converted to a compatible format using a program such as Calibre or Adobe Digital Editions – check with your device manufacturer for details. E-book formats tend to be more dynamic and book-like, though many .pdf picture books feature advanced design.

Guide to common e-book file formats: 

.PDF – Short for Portable Document Format, this is most universally used to transmit text and images. A useful free alternative to downloadable picture books.

.TXT, .DOC – Generic, plain-text document formats. 

.EPUB – Open standard e-book format. Often used for non copyrighted books (see Project Gutenberg for a great resource); the Nook-specific e-book format is a copyrighted .EPUB (DRM .EPUB). Must use a converter program to load onto a Kindle.

.MOBI – Kindle-specific e-book format.

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