Early learning, part 2: Gifted children.

Last Friday, I posted about my conviction that formal academic training for toddlers and preschoolers is, at best, useless. I said at the time that children who are gifted or naturally precocious represent something of a special case. In this post, I’ll extend and qualify that statement.

If I have one quarrel with the excellent book Einstein Never Used Flashcards, it’s that, in their efforts to advocate for age-appropriate play and expectations, the authors disregard the idea that some children are on a different developmental trajectory. Some children really do read fluently and with comprehension at three. Some children like nothing better than to memorize a long list of dinosaur names and features. Some children have capabilities and interests like those of much older children, and they pose an interesting challenge to those of us who believe strongly in developmentally appropriate play-based education.

If you agreed with my earlier post, there’s a good chance that you’ve “liked” this picture on Facebook or reposted it yourself (and I understand why; there are aspects of it that I like too):


While I am sympathetic to the overall intent, when I consider this post in light of my own kids, it kind of makes me itch. Colin just turned three. He has loved to play turn-taking, sedentary, focus-requiring board games like Hi Ho Cherry-O and Zingo since shortly after his second birthday. He likes to cuddle in my lap and hear book after book after book. He is as real and valid a three-year-old as any other, even though he is apparently “built” to do things that the picture insists he cannot (and perhaps should not) not do.

Play-centered philosophies become problematic when they start to be treated as prescriptive rather than descriptive models of childhood – in other words, when they tell you how your child ought to be. Take a look at this article, written from a Waldorf perspective, which explains how to cure your young child of the tendency to be verbal and analytic. (If you were a gifted child, see how far through the article you can get before you start wanting to climb the walls.) Children are not identical, with identical needs. The normative timeline (the one most children will follow) is not the universal timeline.

How do you know if your child is on an earlier path to academics? In most cases, I think your child tells you. My husband’s parents figured it out when, at two, he started reading signs through the car window. My friend Mary’s parents figured it out when she burst into tears reading a newspaper article at the age of three. Your child might demand to be read stacks and stacks of books at an age when she’s only supposed to be able to attend to a few words for a few moments, or he may wear you out with endless questions about science and history and social institutions, or she may take apart and reassemble household objects with dangerous ease. Most parents of gifted children describe a feeling of being dragged along by a child’s intense academic interests. It would be hard for them not to know.

Remember that your child’s path is unlikely to follow a straight line. I thought Alex was telling us she was on an early path to reading when she had all her letters and letter sounds memorized by about 18 months of age. And she did learn to read… three years later. We all would have been in for a lot of frustration if Michael and I had taken her toddler skills as evidence that she was ready to blend words and read. Instead, we immersed her in language in many forms, and when she did learn to read she exploded from first to sixth grade level in less than a year. The trajectory is not guaranteed to be smooth and steady!

Honestly, it’s hard go wrong if you start with the child in front of you. Not the child you could have, or the child you should have, but the child in front of you at this exact moment. Your child will demonstrate for you, with eager demands or with resistance, where to find the space between “not enough” and “too much.” It’s good to educate yourself about the likely boundaries of that space, but your actual child trumps all the guidelines.

Supposing that your very young child is gifted – what then?

  • Remember that play-based learning is powerful. It’s not a weak and watered-down form of education for children who are less capable – it’s the real thing. Don’t feel compelled to go out and get flash cards and “teach your baby to read” programs because your child’s potential demands it; gifted children generally need less drill than typically developing children, not more. Instead, set up open-ended opportunities for your child to explore and learn. Go interesting places. Explore and experiment. Be prepared to answer lots of questions and read lots of books. Try out books for older ages and see whether they are well received, always remembering to follow your child’s lead. Make your explanations of things as complicated or as simple as your child seems to require. Always come back to the child in front of you.
  • Consider whether “deeper, broader, and richer” might be a better fit than “faster.” When Alex was two, or a young three, she went through a period of being very interested in following along with the text of the books we were reading. She often asked me to “show the words” as I said them. In retrospect, she was on the path to figure out reading. What happened? We started reading books to her which had more complex language, more words on the page, and more depth to the story – text she couldn’t work out how to decode. Her interest in following the letters on the page faded. Could she have read sooner if we had replaced “A white bird flew onto one branch and sang a tune so lovely and sweet that it eased the sadness in Cinderella’s heart” with “The cat sat on the mat”? Probably. I have no regrets. I’m convinced that deeper, broader, and richer reading-aloud served her better than earlier reading-to-self.
  • Remember that memorization of isolated facts, while showy, is a fairly low-level skill. True story: one of my college professors once trained pigeons to discriminate between Bach and Stravinsky. If a pigeon can do that, how impressed should we be that Glenn Doman’s flash card-trained preschoolers can recognize examples of cubism? It’s far better, in my view, to learn facts when you are ready to think about them in context. Certainly, allow your child memorize if he likes to (Colin loves his states and capitals), but don’t make it your goal.
  • This one is more my personal opinion than my synthesis of research, but: stay away from the “gifted industry” as long as you can. Don’t read web articles about gifted toddlers. Don’t subscribe to forums for parents of gifted children and try to work out where your two-year-old falls in comparison to the other posters’ kids. Don’t study checklists wondering whether your child is “highly gifted” or just “moderately gifted.” These are all things I did, and they didn’t serve me well. They promote anxiety, comparisons, competition, and overidentification with the gifted label in a way that is just not very useful when your child is young. Again, just focus on the child in front of you. There’s time enough to worry about testing and identification if or when your child goes to school – and the time to wonder whether your child is more or less gifted than particular other gifted children is (pretty much) never.
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13 Responses to Early learning, part 2: Gifted children.

  1. deb says:

    I think the second part of this post holds together really well. It makes a lot of sense that the gifted child needs less drill, and benefits a huge amount from play, hands-on activies, breadth of experience, vocabulary exposure, etc. I don’t know a lot about Waldorf philosophy but the idea that children who are wordy must have it trained out of them, or they will never use their imagination properly seems really weird (reminds me of all of those 19th century warnings for women that higher education would stunt the development and function of their reproductive organs.)

    I’m not sure I follow your offense about the facebook post. I suspect their context is a classroom norm (stand in line, keep quiet, etc.) and really they are making the same point about behavior as you did about reading in your last post — that it would be really sad to treat a 3 year old as if they were a deficient 6 year old. And some of the academic preschools and the home drill programs really do.

    I guess I also think of activity/restlessness vs. ability to sustain attention as being more a matter of temperament than intellectual development. I think at 3 a lot of bright kids do still need a lot of physical engagement and it doesn’t make them less gifted.

    I do like your point about play and depth being important for preschool kids of all levels of intellectual development.


  2. tinderbox says:

    Hey Deb! Thanks for the reminder that sometimes things make more sense inside my head than out. ;-) I’ll edit a little.

    I am not really offended by the Facebook picture – as you say, a lot of it is in line with my general beliefs. I’m just a little irritated by, or uncomfortable with, the overgeneralization – which seems to be sliding over the edge into prescriptiveness.

    I totally agree with you about the need for physical engagement not making a kid “less gifted.”

  3. deb says:

    But I think you are already not expecting Colin to be 6. If they are being prescriptive it is to people who don’t see that difference. (Think about your expectations for Colin’s ability to sit still and be quiet when you are reading something that is of interest to Alex but not to him…) It’s different. And his day is already built with reasonable developmental expectations and activities for the child he is.


  4. Jinian says:

    It took a surprisingly long time for me to start twitching, but I kind of can’t stop now!

    I get what you’re saying in the edited post, no problem.

  5. deb says:

    Never mind my second post. I see the edit now. You were reading it as “3 year olds cannot/should not…”


  6. tinderbox says:

    Jinian, rereading the article I see that it does start out with reasonable concepts, such as the point she makes about discipline. It’s the bulleted list that makes me start checking the path to the exits.

    Deb, I wish I had Einstein Never Used Flashcards here to quote from, because there’s a passage in which the authors flatly deny that any three-year-old can actually read. Three-year-olds who look like they’re reading have just memorized a few things to parrot, and are victims of parents who don’t have a proper developmental understanding of preschoolers. It’s such a weird failing in such an otherwise wonderful book.

    I understand all the very reasonable reasons why description and recommendations are aimed at the fat part of the bell curve, though.

  7. Jenny says:

    I have too many thoughts on this to share in just one comment, so I wrote a post on my blog in response… We’ve done almost 4 years of play-based preschool here, and I think it is fine because my kids are coming from an upper middle class home. But the third graders I use to teach in the former murder capitol of America weren’t so lucky. I wish they had been given more opportunities to learn to write their name and hold a pencil, before they had entered formative schooling. We as a society need to do better for those children.

  8. tinderbox says:

    Jenny, thanks for your thoughts. I left a comment on your blog, but it doesn’t seem to be showing up – do you hold comments for moderation, or did it just vanish into the aether?

  9. Jenny says:

    I had to brave the depths of my spam box to find it. (Shudder). :)

    I was thinking some more about the gifted part of your post, and I never really thought about my own son being gifted until he was 4 and so much different than the other kids in Montessori. With my daughter, I am definitely “watching” more. My husband and I both know from personal experience how weird it is when one sibling is and needs gifted services, and another doesn’t.

  10. Siobhan says:

    Honestly, it’s hard go wrong if you start with the child in front of you. Not the child you could have, or the child you should have, but the child in front of you at this exact moment. Your child will demonstrate for you, with eager demands or with resistance, where to find the space between “not enough” and “too much.” It’s good to educate yourself about the likely boundaries of that space, but your actual child trumps all the guidelines.

    YES. because on top of the fact that all kids are different, some kids are a lot more “different” than others – case in point is my oldest. Anthony is a riddle wrapped in a conundrum. He is very smart but tests poorly. His school performance does not show his intellect, and he has significant deficiencies in some academic areas. He lacks social skills and ability to read social situations, but he is highly charismatic and engaging. He memorizes facts about star trek- seriously, once in a computer store, he chatted up an adult geek wearing a star trek shirt and it turns out that Ant KNEW MORE THAN THE ADULT about star trek. Not exactly a skill that will make you money or impress the in laws but still cool in its own right.

    The other thing I keep coming back to is how school is really not a very good preparation for the real world. We have had two interns straight from high school and while they were both super smart, they had a very hard time fitting into the problem solving/no one is going to tell you the right answer because there isn’t one/you are being assessed on your contributions to the team and not on pleasing the evaluator type of work world. So I don’t get too stressed about academic performance as long as baselines are met and the kids aren’t bored (which is a whole ‘nuther topic”.

  11. Pingback: Early Learning Manifesto. | TINDERBOX

  12. Ailbhe says:

    I need to compare less. I’d like to learn how. It’s comforting that you do it too though.

  13. Gen says:

    Thanks for the article. I am unaware of the full impact on our house but I have suspicions my daughter is gifted. We have a situation where discipline and restlessness is a concern and as a two year old she is talking and developing faster than we can keep up. Our playgroup notices but no one can help and it is stressful. Unfortunately because I am eccentric I have a poor academic background but as I am a primary carer there is pressure to accommodate her needs for intellectual challenge. Part of me would like to relive myself of this duty but I cannot. My history as a creative person in a art-design industry consulting was the only outlet I had, even if it was unconventional. There is a risk I am developing a bright misfit and I am unhappy about this. So far we are just continuing to make it up as we go along; but it is exhausting having a clever and depressing child at times. My daughter is isolated because children around her age cannot reciprocate. She is highly social and astute so being frustrated and alone is very restrictive. I would prefer some way to expand her world for the sake of her feeling accepted, nurtured and encouraged.

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