So you have an eager reader or writer on your hands. Congratulations! You want to encourage this love of learning in your child, and you want to make sure she has enough fodder to keep from getting bored.
It’s easy to want to plow ahead, skipping grades and reading increasingly advanced books. The problem? Just because children are precocious academically doesn’t mean they are older than their age. Children who are academically advanced often get pushed in ways that can develop their reasoning skills to the detriment of their imaginations and emotional health. We want to keep the fire burning in our kids. We don’t want to turn them into mini-adults.
How do we encourage our eager readers and writers without turning them into 10-year-old lawyers or 1-D word-whizzes? Let them direct their academic path, encourage breadth over linear advancement and let them play.
Lead by example
When I was 5, I learned to count to 100. I remember demonstrating my awesome skills to my grandpa, who was a math teacher. His response: to get me to keep counting. My sense of pride in what was still a very new and shaky skill turned into a sense of terror. There were so many numbers; when would it ever end? When would it be enough? I know he was just proud of me and wanted to encourage me, but it took away my confidence. To this day, I think infinity is kind of terrifying.
I see this kind of fear in many of my precocious students. Success is a moving target in their minds, as if what they do will never be adequate. This is completely different than feeling excited for the next challenge. The first is a response to outward standards, perceived or real. The second is more internal.
Children may do something well and then feel finished. What a gift, to know what they have done is enough. Rather than pushing a new challenge on them, support them as they find their own challenges — because, believe me, they will.
So you have an 8-year-old who can write a well-reasoned argument about democratic freedom in a five-paragraph essay, or a 4-year-old who you’re sure would get War and Peace. That doesn’t mean this the best thing for them. It’s so tempting to want to boost kids to the next rung of the ladder. But ladders are narrow — and tippy. Breadth is strength and stability.
Rather than pushing logic-based writing, which isn’t developmentally appropriate until late middle-school, encourage your child to pursue creative writing. Many children love writing poems and stories, even novels. Practice observation skills together and learn how to describe details and experiences precisely.
Help your kids approach other subjects through reading and writing, letting their enthusiasm carry them through things that are more difficult to master. Encourage them to play with calligraphy, learn a foreign language or make up their own language. Do what you can to encourage imagination, a gift for their whole lives.
It’s particularly important not to rush children into books that are too advanced for them. Many good books are ruined for young people when kids read them too early. Some children are turned off reading all together by having to read books that are too far beyond them.
If you have a precocious reader, let them read the stories they are drawn to. Don’t push challenging books meant for older people on them. If they pick them up on their own, that’s one thing, but don’t press it. Eager readers challenge themselves.
Struggling to think of enough books between Captain Underpants and The Hunger Games? Try older children’s books. Many are very sweet stories written in challenging language. There are fabulous new books too. And keep reading aloud to your children even when they can read themselves. This allows you to address the deeper things going on in the stories your child is reading, helps their spoken vocabulary keep up with their written one and gives your family a common well of literary references.
A child's job is to play
Playing is the most important work that children do. Play develops their social skills, empathy, fitness, imagination, confidence, problem solving and risk-assessment capacities — the list goes on.
There are zillions of ways to play using language. Word nerds may enjoy puns, crosswords, word-based board games and parlor games, making up jokes or codes, storytelling, songwriting or spelling out secrets. All of these things could stimulate your child’s love of language and challenge his brain while letting him be playful, creative and goofy.
That is perhaps the most important thing of all: letting kids be kids. The joy and excitement your child feels about reading and writing are gifts. Forced, that joy will become brittle. Nurtured, it could become a way of life.