My childhood bedroom windows faced south and east, and in the spring, our lilac bushes bloomed and the apple tree blossomed. The breeze would blow, carrying a heady, sweet-spicy smell through my window and over my blue-and-white gingham comforter. I laid my freshly washed, braided hair across my flannelly Care Bears pillowcase. I was nestled into a blue silky nightgown with puff shoulders, which my grandma custom-made for me.
When I read that back, it makes it sound as though I lived in the lap of luxury.
But the gift I really got wasn’t a Princess and the Pea childhood, unless you count when my mom read that book, borrowed from the library, aloud to me. The gift was learning to run away in my mind.
I faintly remember sitting on my dad’s lap, watching TV, and seeing the paper-delivery person thwap an evening edition of that day’s news on our front step. Printed in a large, orange-red block-letter font were the letters “PM,” which meant there would be some stories and pictures to dive into with him.
I remember The Electric Company sounding out words on the screen and pushing the syllables together to make a word. I remember the Letters of the Day on Sesame Street. Mr. Rogers encouraged tending to the garden of your mind. My mom and I read poems, short stories, picture books, chapter books. We laughed and wiped tears and I begged for more books, more chapters, more library visits. She always indulged.
Meaning: My first brushes with education were not at a fancy preschool with a waiting list. (Though, hey! Nothing wrong with those!) The older I get, the more I realize what a privilege it was to learn to read on the laps of my parents: They set me up for a lifetime love of learning by helping me translate 26 symbols into rich, cinematographic brain-movies.
Experts say early exposure — before age 5 — is the most intense time of brain development. Whew. My daughter, Ruby, is 5½. That’s intense pressure. The window is closed in this already too-fast, too-precious timeframe. Of course I think my daughter is brilliant, but I can’t help but think: Did I expose her to enough material? Did I make it fun? And then there are my boys — 3½ and 1½. Am I doing my due diligence to download the love of learning from the motherboard by the time they enter kindergarten?
When I get worried about this, as I’m wont to do, I think about bedtime.
Bedtime is always a circus at our house, with three high-octane kids. We’re trying to teach them good skills for winding down at the end of the day. And BLESS ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE and try to get away with NOT READING A BOOK before bed. Each kid picks one to two books, and Ruby is moving into chapter books, a chapter or two a night.
When we finish reading and they ask for one more, I almost never say no. They snuggle in closer, point to the pictures, ask questions. Ruby begs for another chapter, to find out what happens next to Nelly the Monster Sitter. As I turn the pages, they entwine their arms around mine, their heads growing increasingly heavy on my shoulders.
That’s when I know I’ve done something right. They want to turn the pages, be close and learn something. Inhabit another world. To me, that’s just about the best education you can get.
Katie Dohman lives in West St. Paul with her three kids, three pets, and one husband. She loves them all a lot, which is good, because she can’t remember the last time she finished a book of her own.