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Preschoolers can learn almost anything, but they can't learn everything
A photo from a Joy School graduation. - photo by Linda and Richard Eyre
What is the most important thing to teach preschoolers?

Most parents know how incredibly impressionable 3- and 4-year-olds are. They are like little sponges. They can learn almost anything they are exposed to. With dedicated parents and teachers, they can learn to read, play the piano, do math, dribble a ball or recite poetry.

They can learn most anything, but they cant learn everything. And it is up to parents to decide what they want to focus on during these short and fleeting preschool years.

A couple of decades ago, it seemed that most parents thought that getting their preschoolers an academic head start was the most important thing they could do for them. IQ, learning to read early and being ahead when they started kindergarten seemed to be what every parent thought were the keys to success. Many parents still feel that way.

But in our observation, it seems parents increasingly feel that little kids deserve an actual childhood and that being well-adjusted socially and emotionally is much more important for preschoolers than learning to read or add and subtract earlier than their peers.

Two or three decades ago, we suggested parents should be most interested in the happiness level of their kids in their JQ, or "joy quotient," rather than their IQ. We had written a parenting book called "Teaching Your Children Joy" in which we tried to subdivide joy or happiness into its various components or types. We felt that there were certain types of joy that most children have naturally, such as the joy of curiosity or the joy of spontaneous delight. But we believed there were other kinds of joy that did not come naturally but which were accessible to children if they were taught such a the joy of sharing, the joy of order or tidiness or the joy of reaching a specific goal.

As we experimented with the idea of teaching joy to preschoolers, we learned that the objective of the program was also the methodology and the reward of the process. In other words, if you put a child in a situation where he experienced how good it felt to set and accomplish a simple goal, he would want to repeat that feeling by setting another goal.

The methods for teaching the various types of joy included stories, games, role-plays and music. We eventually wrote a book and developed a full-fledged preschool curriculum ( We got some good encouragement along the way from kindergarten teachers who seemed to agree that they would rather receive a 5-year-old who was socially and emotionally well-adjusted, happy and ready to learn than one who was ahead of most of the other kids academically.

Now, considering our experience, let's go back to the opening question: What is the most important thing to teach our preschoolers?

We feel that there are certainly a number of very important things. But in the context of preparing them for school and for a fulfilling life, we vote for joy.