We spent a recent September weekend exploring the woods. One of the highlights was discovering the large variety of mushrooms in the area. We observed the different textures, colors, patterns, sizes, and shapes. We saw that some mushrooms grew out of the ground while others grew out of fallen trees. We wondered why some mushrooms are safe to touch and eat while others are not, and why something living grows on something dead. These observations and open-ended questions support the intellectual mind.
An intellectual mind is one that seeks to understand meaning through questions, observation, and analysis. As children grow, their innate intellects develop—they are always trying to make sense of the world around them and their own place in it.
Academic skills are those geared toward a correct answer; they are learned through practice, memorization, and formulas. Academic skills can aid in intellectual pursuits, and they become necessary as children enter their school age years. But research shows that for young children, fostering the intellect through play-based learning curriculum first is vital to the development of lifelong skills in all areas.
Clancy Blair, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at NYU, has studied a neurobiological model of school readiness. He has found that “preschool programs are best when they focus on social, emotional and intellectual goals rather than narrow academic goals. On the basis of his model, an intellectually rather than academically focused approach is most likely to yield desirable ‘school readiness’ as well as longer term benefits.” (Lively Minds: Distinctions between academic versus intellectual goals for young children, Lilian G. Katz, PhD).
Young children who are exposed to environments that stimulate their intellectual curiosity through play, investigation, and social interactions enjoy the learning process because it stems naturally from the way their minds work. And when children begin to attribute meaning to academic concepts, they will find more long-term success in mastering those concepts. For instance, they may think, Why does science matter, and what makes it interesting? It helps me to figure out what my mind is naturally curious about (e.g. Why is it cloudy today? Will it be cloudy or sunny tomorrow?)
Furthermore, learning environments that emphasize emotional and social development help children to acquire lifelong skills such as resilience, self-regulation and initiative that are tied to school and work success:
“In many studies, behavioral self-‐regulation contributes to achievement even after controlling for initial achievement levels and other background variables such as child IQ, age, ethnicity, and parent education level.”*
At Especially for Children, our goal is to create learning environments that support intellectual, social and emotional development first. We then introduce academic concepts in a developmentally appropriate way so that intellectual and academic development can support one another.