“We’re building a home up the street.”
It felt like a lie to give that explanation over and over to the strangers who have become our new friends, because for the longest time, the truth was that nothing was being built.
We went forward with a plan to build a new home in the new area we were moving to, an endeavor that the project manager estimated would be done by the end of September, only to be waiting for building permits until mid-October.
October. The start of the rainy season. And the rainy season is no joke here in the Pacific Northwest.
Thanks to the kindness of people I’ve never actually met before, we have a home to stay in. A family, working temporarily in another state, is generously letting us rent their furnished home, which simplifies things greatly for us. But I feel a bit like a fish out of water, surrounded by another person’s things.
So, to say that I’m anxious for our home to be built, and to start functioning as the setting for so many of our family memories yet to come, is a bit of an understatement. My nesting instincts, my mother bear instincts, and whatever other animal-inspired instincts are dog-piling together, driving me compulsively toward finishing that house and settling in with my brood.
That’s why last Monday was such a big day.
My boys stood atop a dirt pile (the same one they also enjoyed sliding down several times, as their dirty bums clearly show) and watched with rapt attention as a cement truck rolled in and sludgy cement slid down the chute and out of the pump, filling up the foundation walls that would hold up our home.
Passionate about early education and child development, I find foundations to be particularly interesting. Their function is critical. They’re carefully designed, prepared, inspected, formed, poured, reinforced, inspected again, sealed….. and then, after all of that, almost totally covered back up with dirt.
Other than the heavy machinery, there’s still no visible evidence of a house to be seen from the road. And once the house is complete, no one will ever arrive at our home and comment on how much they admire the foundation, should they even manage to scramble around enough to see much of it.
I am anxious to see a home standing in that spot of dirt. Not lines of cement. I want a home I can cook in, sleep in, gather in, live in. And I’d love to see that home spring up right now.
But not so much that I’d skip building the foundation.
The foundation is what keeps us firmly planted. A house doesn’t just sit on the foundation, it’s securely attached. Every 18 inches around the perimeter of the house there’s a large bolt embedded in the cement that affixes to the floor of the house. In addition to that, there are multiple steel straps, each of them several feet long, that are also embedded in the cement foundation and later attached to the walls of the house with an almost ridiculous number of fasteners.
All of this connection keeps the home safe when the wind and rain come (and boy do they come!) or should an earthquake ever surface.
My husband commented recently, that when he oversaw the construction of our past home, the framers were quick to point out that whoever had done the foundation had done exceptional work. They were glad to see that it had been done so well, because all of the work they were about to do would depend upon it. Straight and square walls start with a straight and square foundation, was their perspective.
Like the foundation for our homes, the early years of a child’s development are a critical time of preparation.
The tasks of early development are often unseen or unrecognized by others. More commonly identified as play, this work of singing, climbing, running, pretending, painting, talking, and listening, is more powerful than its simplicity implies. Each activity is laying the foundation for future learning.
Children singing songs and listening to stories are building critical pre-reading skills — skills that are not just nice, but necessary for them to become readers. Little fingers lining up cars on a mat are building the fine motor skills that will allow them later to hold pencils and master keystrokes. At the same time, this play-work is also helping them build concepts of numeracy, such as a one-to-one ratio as they move cars one by one, or the ability to sort by attributes as red cars and blue cars find separate parking lots, or the ability to compare quantities as they realize their friends have more or less cars piled up than do they. All of these skills need practice and hands-on construction before we introduce the later math concepts that often play out on grade-school worksheets.
In addition to all of that, this foundation of play and exploration prepares children with the gifts of wonder and social problem-solving. These are gifts that are built through experience, not by lecture. And it is these gifts that open the door to all later learning.
Those unable to see the foundation of early learning for what it is are often eager to plop something down that’s more rewarding. Just as I may be happy to skip right to the home I can see, they want to go directly to the seen skills like reading rather than pre-literacy skills and mathematical computations instead of early numeracy. This is the learning that “counts”, after all.
But just as our framers needed the assurance of a well-prepared foundation, our young children need a solid, deep foundation in hands-on exploration and play to prepare them for later skills. As I’ve said before, watching a child take words from a page and turn them into a spoken story is magical to watch — like seeing a house come up where there was once nothing — but before you can put the work and effort into decoding, you have to build the foundation with things like language, phonemic awareness, and concepts of print.
As literacy experts, Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, stated in their book, Literacy Beginnings: A Prekindergarten Handbook(*affiliate link – a book I strongly recommend for preK teachers and home educators):
“The knowledge that forms the foundation for reading and writing is built throughout early childhood through play, language, and literary experiences.”
Learning foundations are built through play and experience. And we can’t afford to skip that. A push-down curriculum isn’t helping kids to get ahead, it’s simply ignoring the critical role of the foundation.
The metal straps and bolts of the foundation secure our home and keep it firm in the face of storms and tremors, and a strong foundation does the same for our young learners. A lack of foundational skills weakens our learners as they move on to more and more challenging work. Often, those who struggle in later grades with reading, do so because they lack foundational skills that begin early on like phonemic awareness or story comprehension. Math woes begin when we fail to start with a foundation of number sense and numeracy through hands-on activities. (The Number Bag is one of my favorite techniques to use in the preK classroom.)
Those straps and bolts are also a reminder that a house isn’t built in independent levels. There’s an interconnection. The house isn’t just set down onto the foundation, it grows out of it. Likewise, strong foundational learning gives root to later learning as basic concepts create connections necessary for inquiry and growth.
When children are allowed the time and space to build strong foundations, the skills built later on come more easily and solidly. We owe children the opportunity to build strong foundations in ways that are developmentally appropriate. Let’s reject the notion that we have to leave childhood behind in order to get ahead. Let’s be builders.