"It lies within us as adults either to turn newborns into monsters by the way we treat them or to let them grow up into feeling - and therefore responsible - human beings."
- Alice Miller in Prisoners of Childhood
In Nordic mythology Frey, the son of the god of the sea Njord, is a very famous god. Frey was given a present when he got his first new tooth at about seven years of age. The dwarfs built him Skilbladner, a ship so big it could carry all the gods and so small that it could be folded and put into Frey's pocket. This ship is symbolic of the power of words and knowledge. By the time children are seven they have a huge amount of knowledge about life and living.
The Norse believed that children are still playing in the water until they are seven. By then they have developed to a place where they can begin to work with words, to play with concepts, and put them together to understand things. They believed that letters are nothing in themselves but have value only when we have the ability to put them together to make meaning.
They also believed that children need to develop their resonators. Just as the bottom of a musical instrument is created to resonate the sound and to make the music strong, children need to have time to develop the ability to absorb, reflect and magnify the knowledge they receive.
When we push children before they have developed their resonators, Norse mythology says they may become angry trolls. Eventually they want to kill the wise man because they don't understand his wisdom.
We have people in the world who are trolls; uninformed and angry in varying degrees; living shallow, simple lives uncluttered by big ideas.
A country can choose to raise wise men or trolls depending on how they treat their pre-seven-year-old children. If we don't allow children time to develop resonance, early education can create hostility and anger. With the new emphasis on accountability and academics in kindergarten, we run the risk of turning some children into trolls.
The resonators are prepared through play. Imam Jaafer Assadig in A Child's Education in Islam agrees when he says,
"Leave your child to play for seven years."
"Children are independent until seven years."
"Children are comfortable until seven years."
This document on Islamic education further advises that, "Participation of the parent with the child while playing is very necessary. The best way to participate is to converse with the child in ways he understands, i.e. behave as if you are a kid."
Nordic countries still believe this. Recently, I back-packed through Sweden and Finland, visiting some schools along the way. I learned that they don’t start formal teaching of reading or math until children are seven. Parents may choose to send their children to school at six, where a rich environment expands their experience and builds inter-personal skills, but they don’t have to. They have top scores on international reading tests.
Of course, many children can read well before seven which is great. The rest can learn quickly when they bring a lot of experience to their reading. The push to getting children into school earlier is admirable only if educators use play to build core strengths, confidence, and resonance until they are seven. There are enough years left after that to work on formal academics.
H. T. Epstein in Education and the Brain says, “Children exposed to intellectual pressures and inputs for which they have no proper receptive circuitry may learn to reject such inputs; such a rejection might even result in an inability to take in such inputs later when the circuitry has developed.”
A quote from a 1907 version of Friedrich Froebel’s book, The Education of Man, is as true as it was when he wrote it in 1826.
“We grant space and time to young plants and animals because we know that, in accordance with the laws that live in them, they will develop properly and grow well. Young animals and plants are given rest, and arbitrary interference with their growth is avoided, because it is known that the opposite practice would disturb their pure unfolding and sound development; but, the young human being is looked upon as a piece of wax or a lump of clay which man can mold into what he pleases.”
Froebel observed that children were ready to read when they got their first tooth - about seven years old. My friend, Hanne Seidel, one of the best grade one teachers I am privileged to know, once told me she watched her grade ones and found that Froebel was right. If they were not turned off by too much pressure to learn to read before then, they read easily after they got their first new tooth.
We would do well to listen to Froebel, Hanne, the story of Frey, the wisdom of Islam, and Nordic educators in our treatment of young children.