All parents want their child to have the best possible start to their school life. But when exactly should you introduce structured learning to their daily routine?

Many people are advocates of them starting young, hoping this will help their child leapfrog to the top of the class. Unfortunately, simply placing a book in front of a toddler won’t inspire them to read. For a lot of children, early years learning does not necessarily guarantee future success.

So then how do you decide when they are ready? And how do you encourage them to take that first step? The answer can vary from child to child. What works for one individual might not work for the next, but this is all part of the process. The worst thing you can do is force a child to read or write before they are comfortable doing so. Of course, there are other sides to learning and these should never be discredited.

The damage of starting too young

Some experts suggest that reading shouldn’t factor in a child’s life until they have turned seven. This is due to an apparent confidence crisis in young children, who believe they aren’t up to scratch when they can’t keep up with reading goals. Although this might not be the case for every child, it certainly raises an interesting question: can starting too young put children off for life?

According to studies, early years schooling can have a significant negative impact on a child’s wellbeing. Many children grow up ‘intellectually imbalanced’ because they are rushed into learning the three Rs. There is a misinformed belief that bright children need to be tutored as soon as possible, when, in reality, pushing them into formal learning can actually hinder them later on in life.

Alternatives to formal learning

Structured play

Recent research suggests that structured play should form the basis of learning for all children under the age of five. According to a study from Kingston University, this is down to the fact that, until this age, children’s memories and linguistic skills simply aren’t up to the monumental task of learning to read and write. If this is the case, then attempting to introduce sentence structure or spelling to the mind of a two year old is only going to end in frustration. Instead, parents should focus on the materials their children engage with everyday of their lives.

Play is a very important part of the learning process. Without it, your child will struggle to deal with an array of problems. Structured play not only helps introduce the basic principles of maths, science and literacy, but helps your child develop both physically and mentally. In fact, from a young age, it teaches them a lot more about life than anything else does. Children who play with toys, build towers and exercise their creative side are shown to be a lot more emotionally and socially developed. On top of this, they are also more physically advanced, with fine and gross motor skills prospering from more tactile approaches to learning. All of these skills are essential in a school environment and shouldn’t be overshadowed by formal learning.

Unstructured play

On the other side of the coin is unstructured play. Allowing your toddler the space to think and create by themselves should not be undervalued. Although it may seem like they are just fooling around, there are demonstrable benefits to this form of exploratory behaviour. To fully understand the concepts of problem-solving, empathy and collaboration, young children need time to play together and make decisions for themselves. Not only will this help them to cope both emotionally and socially, it also creates a stable base from which they can begin structured lessons. Encouraging your child to think for themselves can be a lot more effective than simply telling them what they should be learning.

About the author: Sam Flatman is an outdoor learning specialist and an Educational Consultant for Pentagon Play. Sam has been designing playgrounds for the past 10 years and has a passion for outdoor education. Sam believes that outdoor learning is an essential part of child development, which can be integrated into the school curriculum.

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