Should Preschoolers Ever Be Wrong?

Children enter our preschool classrooms excited to play and explore the things that make them curious.  We can foster that curiosity and create a love of learning by making children feel capable or we can destroy it.  The way in which we approach extending their knowledge lays the foundation for all future learning experiences.   When selecting a preschool or working with your preschooler at home, parents need to consciously examine the effects of methodology on self-esteem.

A foundation for a love of learning is created by making children feel that their curiosity has merit and that they are capable.  Education theorists such as Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky showed us that children develop at their own rates and that development has to derive from play and other joyful experiences.  Erik Erikson, who studied the psychosocial development of humans, showed that young children’s experiences can make them feel trusting, autonomous and capable of taking initiative or can make them feel full of mistrust, shame and doubt.  As parents, we want our children to be self-assured; yet, we often put them in situations that undermine their self-worth.

What happens when we sit young children in front of endless worksheets and constantly point out their errors and inadequacies?  What happens when their artwork must look like evidence of learning so we tell them that they are wrong to glue something in a certain place or that the sky cannot be green?  What happens when instructors or coaches are exasperated at them because they did not hit the ball, kick it well or perfect the dance? 

We have plenty of time in our lives to be wrong.  It is not true that young children learn to handle criticism well by being wrong.  They learn that they are not capable.  The process of shutting down begins.  They become reluctant and fearful of trying new things.  They stop thinking and start trying to avoid being wrong.  They do things just to get them done so they can do something more pleasurable.  The goal in the early childhood years should be to make learning the pleasurable activity and not the thing that must get done so we can move on.  Young children who enter the elementary school years feeling capable are able to handle correction without a feeling of defeat and are confident enough to try again.

Many people argue that you can’t just let the children be wrong.  We must correct them.  Again, it is all in the methodology.  First, we must acknowledge that worksheets, workbooks and endless pieces of paper do not capture curiosity.  Should we offer young learners the opportunity to write?  Of course.  When we do, we have to accept that their fine motor and cognitive skills develop at different rates.  Let them write only for as long as they want to write and know that they are too young to master the skill.  We can take turns writing with them so they watch and attempt to imitate.  We can smile at them and say, “Do you want to see an easy way to do that?”  We should not force them to sit when they do not want to and tell them that they have done it wrong.  They will not scribble forever.  As their fine motor muscles strengthen, their coordination improves and the pathways in their brains are formed, their ability to write and read will improve.  In the meantime, applaud their efforts so they keep joyfully trying.

Next, we need to understand that just because a child paints the sky green or scribbles and tells us that the drawing is a car, it doesn’t mean that they won’t go outside and say the sky looks blue or that they won’t be able to find a car in the parking lot.  Allowing children to draw, cut and paste freely is actually a window into what they are thinking, not what knowledge they possess.  The minute we hand them a pre-cut window and say “Glue it here on the house,” they stop thinking and just start trying to please us.  Arts & crafts should never have a right and wrong answer.  They should be self-expression.  As adults, we understand that art is self-expression.  We need to stop trying to use it as some grand lesson about the world for young children.  That paper plate full of cotton balls is not a sheep.  We know it and they know it.  It is merely a paper plate full of cotton balls – an exercise in gluing.

Finally, we need to be careful to match our children up with the right coaches, instructors and purveyors of other lessons.  It is okay to pull your child from a team or activity and find another if you see the adults making them feel inadequate.  If it is hard for us to watch how children are being treated, then imagine how they feel being the receivers of the treatment.  Winning is nice but acknowledgement of the effort is important too.  Losing with dignity is something children learn by example.  When adults are disgusted, the lesson becomes “you are not able” instead of “you can try again.”

Poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing…”  It was true when Wadsworth said it in the 1800s and it is still true of our children today.  Consider how we are teaching our young children to judge themselves.

Copyright 2012 © Cindy Terebush
All Rights Reserved
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  1. I have to admit, I thought this was going to be one of those "everybody wins because we don't keep score" kind of articles. But I should have known better. Very thought provoking and helpful.

    1. I'm glad you found it thought provoking. Please feel free to share it on social media.

    2. I agree that children should experience being right; however, it is also true that chidlren should make as many mistakes as they want. The deeper issue is about right and wrong altogether. School should not be about maximizing right answers and minimizing wrong answers. To EDUCATE school needs to establish a culture of learning which embraces all those important areas of learning: mistakes, failure, conflict, disappointment, falling, losing, etc. They should experiment at the water table with things sinking and floating and keep sophisticating their hypotheses about what makes things sink and float. It's brain development we are after not right answers.

    3. I agree that children should be able to make their own mistakes. Making mistakes, trying's all building problem solving skills. I take exception when the adults impose right and wrong when they should actually be encouraging the attempt and experimentation.

    4. Thanks for sharing Cindy. Our goal should be to teach children HOW to thing, not WHAT to think.

    5. Absolutely! The ability to build knowledge and be a confident learner is so important.


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