Child dressed in a costume with wings while playing with a toy

By Maren Schmidt, Author of Understanding Montessori

Dear Father, hear and bless thy beasts and singing birds; And guard with tenderness small things that have no words.

Perhaps you remember this childhood prayer. For me it is a call to duty.

Young children often do not have the words to express themselves. I see our job as adults is to help children find expression for their needs and emotions. It is our job to guard with tenderness these eager, loving and trusting children and guide them to become confident and independent adults.

Until children lose their first tooth around age six, they learn very differently than those of us over the age of six. Our biggest teaching mistakes are made by treating these small children as “little adults,” when in fact, they are far from that. One mistake we make is giving our children fantasy when they need something different. Before the age of six, a child has a difficult time perceiving the difference between reality and fantasy because the mind at that point is designed to take in everything as real.

I remember watching Peter Pan on television when I was four years old and believing I could fly off the back of the living room couch. Sound familiar? Reality met fantasy on a hardwood floor, and the goose egg on my forehead was the proof that Peter Pan was fantasy. My disappointment was keen and probably initiated a distrust of television.

Brain research indicates that the violence a child sees on television is taken in by the mind as real. The television violence a child sees before the age of six is undistinguishable to a child’s perception from real acts of violence.

We need to protect our children from make-believe situations that can harm their impressionable minds.
Young children are absorbing information and their minds are creating personal reality from this information. We can help children tremendously by being “storytellers of the truth.”

To a young child a detailed account of what we bought at the grocery store is as interesting as anything we could make up in our wildest dreams. The young child has a hunger for knowing the names of things and seeing how things are done. Around age four-and-a half a child has a strong need for vocabulary and can learn over 250 new words per week if given the opportunity. When language enrichment does not occur, children will create a fantasy world with imaginary friends and activities.

As adults we amuse our children with cartoons and shows with singing animals, vegetables and kitchen appliances. What children need, and can’t tell us, is “real stuff.”

Open up your toolbox, and give your child the names for all the tools. Children love to learn the names of the different parts of each tool. With the hammer, show them the handle, the claw and the head. Tell them it is made of steel.

This is how we become “storytellers of the truth.”

With a healthy diet of facts and experiences, your child will develop a mind based in reality that will aid him or her in developing a reasoning adult mind. Look for a visual dictionary next time you’re in a bookstore. It is full of the names of various items from toothbrushes to airplanes, with labels for all the parts. It’s a better investment for your child’s learning than a new video.

Three- to six-year-olds do not have the knowledge or experience to know what they need to grow. They are “small things that have no words.” Children need adults who will give them a true and realistic picture of the world through meaningful experiences and accurate information.