Concrete experiences before abstract learning

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December 4, 2017
Pregnancy, date of birth and scholastic performance
December 6, 2017

By Dr Melodie de Jager

Imagine waking up to the song of birds, cool fresh air and then being greeted by a little voice that says: “Good morning Mommy!” while she puts her warm little arms around your neck.

Aren’t these the moments we live for?

Now imagine the same scenario, but instead of experiencing this moment you are handed a drawing of it. Not a full color photo, but a bleak hand drawn image of a parent and child hugging. It is not quite the same, is it? Yet these are the images we find in preschool worksheets – one dimensional, no smell, no taste, no sound and no touch experience whatsoever. It’s not quite the same experience, is it?

While recently visiting Barcelona, I stumbled upon a fresh produce market very early one morning. I was overtaken by awe, wonder, and excitement, and then… even a little bit of sadness. I was in awe and wonder about the hustle and bustle of the market– it was filled with happy active people eager to sell their goods – the way they displayed their goods, the colors, the smells, the sheer energy of the whole place was amazing! Even the way they engaged with their buyers was worth observing, and even educational! The early morning greetings, the banter, the hackling, and the on-the-job-coaching as one seller says to his fellow seller “say: take two” and their laughter at the ingenuity of their sales pitch, was all experiences that made Barcelona a place I will never forget. And then in strong contrast to the experience above, an image of a person sitting in front of a computer, browsing the internet for normal day to day shopping items, like milk and bread, flashed through my mind and I was overtaken by sadness.

How did this happen?

How did we allow two dimensional images to replace rich multi-sensory experiences that are within our reach daily? Have we become so afraid to live?

According to the Autism Society the prevalence of autism in children in the United States is increasing rapidly. Where one in 150 children were previously diagnosed with Autism in 2010, one in 68 children are now being diagnosed, making Autism the fastest growing developmental disability. And if you listen to conversations at children’s’ parties you will hear chatter mirroring the above mentioned statistics – numerous children between the ages of 3 and 9 are either on medication or receiving therapy, or both!

The colorful three-dimensional preschool years (concrete learning) are being replaced by black and white two dimensional worksheets (abstract learning) because so many teachers, unfortunately very often caring but unqualified preschool teachers, misunderstand the importance and educational value of concrete experiences and the invaluable social interactions that go with it.


Every week a preschool child should learn something new about concrete or tangible everyday objects. They will learn what it is (language), what it does (science and maths), and what you can use it for (life skills). Once a child has experienced life -not looked at life in books or on screens (books and screens are wonderful add-on’s to reinforce what has been experienced tangibly) then learning about faraway things and places (like dinosaurs) are wonderful. Real must come first. The more we remove children from what is real and prevent them from exploring life playfully, the more we cultivate a sub-specie. A sub-specie where children (and adults) feel disconnected, anxiety-ridden, worthless, isolated, lonely and confined to existing online.

CAUTION: The following factors can undermine the purpose of the preschool years:

  • Relying on workbooks and colouring books to please parents and prove what the child has done at school
  • Teaching children to read and write, before the children have mastered the skill to listen (the first time) and hold a crayon properly
  • Recommending an unhealthy number of compulsory extramural activities that evoke stress and the pressure to perform.

The preschool years are a marvelous opportunity for the child to 1) discover the world he or she lives in, so they 2) know it, and 3) ‘belong’. DISCOVERY should be hands-on and PLAYful and not WORKSHEET-ful.

Summer in South Africa is such a happy time to be playing and experiencing things outdoors. Connect. Touch. Smell. Taste it.

Live life!


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