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Ask Dr. Sears: Homeschooling a Gifted Child

Q. My 17-month-old knows how to say her ABC's, count to ten, sing songs, and say words like "bumble bee" and phrases like "I love you." Many people have told me that she's very advanced. I planned to stay home with her until she starts kindergarten, but I'm worried that if she really is gifted, keeping her home may hinder her development. How can I tell if she's actually gifted? And what sort of learning activities can I do with her at home?

A. In my opinion, all children are gifted, but they are gifted in different ways. Judging from your description of your daughter's language development, she is developmentally advanced. You'll want to make wise choices about selecting education that brings out the best in her. Try these suggestions:

Enjoy her toddlerhood

Let her be a baby for a while. While it's wise to plan ahead, don't forget to enjoy the moment because she won't be a baby for forever! Right now, don't worry about educational devices and curriculum. Just enjoy playing with her because playtime is actually learning time for a toddler. Expose her to a variety of fun activities.

Select stimulating toys

Intellectually-gifted children often get bored with standard toys. Choose playthings that are interactive; they're the ones I refer to as "make-things-happen" toys. One example: blocks. Your daughter can stack them taller and taller and make complex structures. Toddler puzzles are also a great attention-holder. Since your daughter is verbally advanced, sing songs with her and watch age-appropriate videos together. Be sure to keep up a conversation about what you're seeing. Just don't feel pressured to buy a lot of stuff. Playing with household items such as pots and pans can be lots of fun! And as always, remember that interaction with you and other caregivers is the most stimulating activity for your daughter.

Homeschooling can be the best preschool

If you have the time, energy, and desire to homeschool your child until she's old enough for kindergarten, go for it. The belief that children need preschool to start them on a higher educational track is unwarranted. There are no studies that link attending preschool and getting into Harvard. I've had parents in my practice who panicked when their child didn't pass the entrance exam for their chosen preschool. I told them, "The only thing your child is missing out on is learning bad habits and getting a lot of germs."

Homeschooling a preschooler can actually be better for a gifted child for a few reasons: First, you know your child. You are the perfect student-teacher match. You know what holds her attention and what doesn't. Second, for toddlers and preschoolers, learning is mood-dependent. There are times they need to rest, and times they need to be stimulated. At home, you can follow your child's natural rhythms instead of requiring her to stick to a pre-set schedule.

In her excellent book, Top of the Class, author Arline Bronzaft discusses research on academic high achievers (AHAs), gifted children who went on to achieve academic success. The number one key to nurturing an AHA is to instill a love of learning early on, and you can do that better at home. Since you can easily match your teaching skills with your child's learning skills, you are more likely to instill a love of learning in her, and you're more likely to focus on the journey rather than the outcome. Homeschooling moms are also apt to place more emphasis on creativity and enjoying learning than on a grade.

Use home resources

Many communities have curricula for homeschooling parents. Check with your local school district to see if they have a curriculum for you to follow. Be advised, however, that most of these are for children in kindergarten and up. However, your curriculum needn't be anything special  -- it could simply consist of working her into your daily living experiences. Take her shopping with you, and think of the supermarket as a giant classroom! As you shop, have a running commentary on what you're buying, and why. Let her help you. Tell her, "Let's pick out some good-for-you foods such as red, yellow, and green fruits and veggies that will help you grow strong and smart!" Also, enjoy the natural educational perks of nature. Capitalize on a basic principle of education: An activity that a child initiates herself is likely to have more learning value. For example, when she points to a bird and says "bird," expand on her observation by saying, "That's right! Birds have wings to help them fly in the sky."

I believe that the main reason we send our children to school, in a nutshell, is to give them the tools to succeed in life. From the description of your child and your concerns about her education, she will be fortunate to have you as her teacher.