Cultivate critical thinking


Last week, I encouraged you to put the flash cards away and trade rote academic teaching for imaginative play and virtue development. Some of you may have wondered whether parents could do both. Can’t we keep the flash cards out as long as we also work with them on important virtues that will serve them well in school?

This would seem to make sense, right? Sorry, but I still encourage you to put the flash cards away. Here’s why.

Abstracts concepts like flat numbers and letters limit our children’s ability to think critically, especially if they are introduced at a time when the child is not developmentally ready for them.

Critical thinking has become a rare commodity in our country. We can succeed in school as long as we ace the multiple choice tests, fill in the right bubbles on standardized tests, and memorize random facts that the schools deem important.

I don’t know about you, but I would much rather have a child who can read a piece of classical literature, analyze it for meaning, and write a critical essay on the topic. Yes, there is a time and place for absorbing facts, but if they have no meaning, they will quickly be forgotten.

The role of fantasy in critical thinking

I touched on the importance of imaginative play in a recent post. Supporting my thoughts, this article offers a great explanation as to why critical thinking is so important (despite the decline we now see) and how cultivating our children’s imagination or fantasy plays an important role. The author says:

“If fantasy is allowed to ripen side by side with thinking, these two faculties mature into creative thinking, a capacity to visualize not only how things are but also how they might be.”

This plays out in the world as a whole but also in school.

“Without imagination, one cannot picture an event in history, a verbal problem in mathematics, or the characters of a book. To approach academic subjects without imagination is a dull affair at best, and it is not surprising that children who are being educated without benefit of imagination at the elementary level find learning so uninteresting.”

Imagine the stress and burnout that arises from such uninteresting learning. How many teens do you know who truly enjoy going to school? How many adults do you know who enjoy learning for the sake of learning?

“At the elementary school level, one frequently hears about burnout among third- and fourth-grade pupils. After age nine, many children simply do not want to learn any more. In the high school, educators say that many students seem unable to think. Ask them a defined question that requires a true/false answer or a multiple choice, and they do all right. But ask them to think through a problem and explain their solutions, and many are at a loss.”

What does academic success look like?

Maybe this simple exercise will help. When you imagine your child succeeding in school, what do you think of?

Scenario A

  • She leaves preschool able to read all of the “-at” words and doing basic math (1+2).
  • She thrives on earning straight As.
  • She spends her free time doing worksheets.
  • She smiles when the teacher puts a gold star on her paper.

Sounds great, right? Well, think about this scenario.

Scenario B

  • She comes bounding in the door after school excited to get started on her science experiment. You have to stop her to eat a snack.
  • As she works on her homework, she makes a mental connection that you never expected.
  • You hear from the teacher that she told the kids all about Picasso. You then realize it was from the art exhibit you visited 3 months ago.
  • You see her acting out a play with her friends and realize all of the characters are from the classical novel you’ve been reading to her at night.

Which scenario do you think will encourage a life-long love of learning? Which scenario requires fantasy (and thus, critical thought)? Which scenario will prevent boredom? Which scenario sounds more fun?

Can’t we still teach them letters and numbers?

Yes, just not yet. There is a developmentally appropriate time for a child to learn how to read. In my experience, early reading begins around age 5, and if you let it happen naturally, it won’t be long (6 months to a year) before he reads fluently. As with potty training, if you start when they are ready and let it progress naturally, it will happen much more quickly and painlessly.

Some of you may even contend that your toddler wants to learn his letters and numbers. If this is the case, I ask you why you think he wants to learn them. What meaning do they have for him? I’m willing to bet that the joy he gets is seeing your smiles and hearing your praise. If you can give the same smiles and praise over more meaningful learning, he will be just as excited to learn.

Understand that it’s not just a matter of how much time you devote to learning. What you teach your child—and when you teach it—can affect his neurodevelopment.

Another article explains this clearly:

“Perhaps most disturbing is the potential for the early exposure to academics to physiologically damage developing brains. Although the brain continues to change throughout life in response to learning, young children undergo a number of sensitive periods critical to healthy development; learning to speak a language and responding to social cues are two such domains. Appropriate experiences can hone neural pathways that will help the child during life; by the same token, stressful experiences can change the brain’s architecture to make children significantly more susceptible to problems later in life, including depression, anxiety disorders—even cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist at the Rockefeller University, notes that asking children to handle material that their brain is not yet equipped for can cause frustration. Perceiving a lack of control is a major trigger of toxic stress, which can damage the hippocampus, a brain area crucial to learning and memory.”

I don’t intend for this to be a scare tactic. But given that teaching abstract letters and numbers has the potential to negatively affect your young child’s brain and his ability to process information—and that we prefer scenario B listed above anyway—why would you want to push early academic learning? Why wouldn’t you want to put those flash cards away?

I’ll leave at that for now. In my next post, I’ll give you some ideas on what you can start doing today to cultivate critical thinking and encourage life-long learning that has meaning for your child.


  1. Yes! Finally someone writes about Free Gold For Clash of Clans.

Speak Your Mind