Let Them Play: Is Early Formal Education Hurting Our Kids?

Intersting educational news from England regarding the state of primary education there that I think translates well in the US where the average child starts formal schooling at 4.5 years of age.


Children, their World, their Education: final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review (supported by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and based at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.)

We know, thanks to research, what children need to flourish in their early years. They need the opportunity to build their social skills, their language and their confidence. They do this best through structured play and talk, interacting with each other and with interested and stimulating adults. The evidence is overwhelming that all children, but particularly those from disadvantaged homes, benefit from high-quality pre-school experiences… There is no evidence that a child who spends more time learning through lessons – as opposed to learning through play – will ‘do better’ in the long run. In fact, research suggests the opposite; that too formal too soon can be dangerously counterproductive. In 14 of the 15 countries that scored higher than England in a major study of reading and literacy in 2006, children did not enter school until they were six or seven. And more children read for pleasure in most of those countries than do so in England.

I think this is particularly interesting since it speaks to what I feel is our society’s desire to have our kids grow up too soon (sleep alone by 6 weeks, wear thong underwear at 8!, etc.). We are forever shortening the concept of childhood. Research into cognitive development shows early childhood, sometimes called the “play age”, extending until 7 or 8 years. For example, Piaget’s cognitive development timeline has children not reaching concrete operation until between the ages of 7 and 12; In Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, children don’t reach the level of conventional morality until adolescents (pre-conventional morality being a very egocentric black/white view of morality and conventional being more societal and long-term); and Lev Vygotsky’s research on play also shows that the development “in the early grades (4 – 7 year olds) the promotion of learning activity can be prepared by stimulating the development of the essential psychological prerequisites of learning activity during play.”

It is also interesting to note historical ages of childhood. Although it is often shown that childhood has a much more important role in the modern world (with lack of responsibilities and privilage) historically children were considered infants and babies much longer. The Jews of the Bible age kept children until they were weaned usually around 6 years old. Sparta, which took its boys for military training, did so at 7 years old. The following chart (click on it to get a bigger view) has an interesting look at the stages of childhood. Notice how they fade in and out – since each child is different.


Perhaps we are expecting too much from our children too soon? Is this having a negative impact on outcomes? In our hurry to make our kids grow up are we shortchanging their cognitive development? Another quote from the Cambridge report:

When the children moved into Year 1 [kindergarten equivalent in the US] we found some were regressing educationally and in their social and emotional development. They worried about their learning and this stopped them being effective learners any more. The transition from the foundation stage was such a drastic change. They were used to initiating their own learning and suddenly we were restricting them with literacy and numeracy hours, prescribing what and when they should learn.

Learning is a natural human adaptation. It is what makes us learn to walk and talk in such a short time. Nurturing this natural tendency is the best way to help children grow. Hindering or restricting the process breaks down the ability to effectively learn. This is why children who are forced to read before their time (which is much older for boys than girls) can lose the love of reading before they reach middle school. It becomes a burden instead of fun.
For me, homeschooling answers this problem. I’ll be able to let Aellyn’s interests direct her learning. But, if that isn’t an option to you look for schools that foster play-based learning in K-3. Talk to your local school board about the importance of play-based learning. The research is there to back it up we just need the right people to listen.

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2 thoughts on “Let Them Play: Is Early Formal Education Hurting Our Kids?

  1. Pingback: My Homeschool Philosophy: Part 1 | Baby Dust Diaries

  2. Pingback: My Homeschooling Philosophy: Part 3 | Baby Dust Diaries

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