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Are we pushing young kids too hard to advance academically?

Are we expecting too much, too early?

The desire for kids to be prepared for school or excel once they are in school is causing parents of preschoolers to take action.

Some hire tutors for subjects like reading and math, to ensure their child’s kindergarten readiness and instill confidence in them as they take standardized tests and work among their peers.

The pressure is on.

Kids are working harder than ever … so much so that play time is being stripped away in favor of seat time and workbooks.

Pressure-cooker kindergarten,” an article in The Boston Globe, describes the shift away from an era when kindergarten teachers were free to create learning opportunities through play, movement, song and games; now instructors are pressured to meet high expectations and teach by the book.

Winifred Hagan, a former kindergarten teacher and a vice president at the Cayl Institute in Cambridge, said, “Kids are spending hours of their day sitting with pencils and tracing dotted lines … And we call that education? We are kidding ourselves.”

One unfortunate result of this fast-track approach is that many kids aren’t developmentally ready for what’s being asked of them. When they score low, they end up feeling stupid.

The article turned to David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child and The Power of Play, for his opinion:

When children are required to do academics too early, [Elkind] says, they get the message that they are failures. “We are sending too many children to school to learn that they are dumb … They are not dumb. They are just not there developmentally.” (“Pressure-Cooker kindergarten“)

A related article at MSNBC, “Tutoring tots? Some kids prep for kindergarten,” expressed similar concerns. Play is neglected in this academically accelerated childhood, and the pressure is resulting in anxiety and emotional issues.

The article cited a report from the Alliance for Childhood entitled “Crisis in the Kindergarten.” Its premise is that children learn through play. The published report opened with a paragraph that anticipates the arguments people will raise in response to the statement that play is essential to learning in kindergarten:

The argument of this report, that child-initiated play must be restored to kindergarten, will be dismissed and even ridiculed in some quarters. In spite of the fact that the vital importance of play in young children’s development has been shown in study after study, many people believe that play is a waste of time in school.  School, they say, should be a place for learning. There’s plenty of time for play at home. (“Crisis in the Kindergarten“)

Some people will stand by the belief that school is a place for serious learning; that there is plenty of time for play at home. Some people won’t be convinced that children learn through play. “There is plenty of time for play at home,” they’ll say, as they unwrap another packet of phonics flash cards.

We live in a world where standard early education learning materials of the past such as blocks, sand and water tables, and props for dramatic play “have largely disappeared” from more than 250 full-day kindergarten classrooms studied. Most children, the study found, were given half an hour or less a day for playtime. Some got no playtime at all.

Play, which could serve as a stress-reliever from all these academic pressures, is abbreviated or nonexistent. But many experts point out that play is about more than expending energy—it’s how kids learn important skills for life. “Tutoring tots?” talked with the executive director of the Alliance for Childhood, Joan Almon, who says that play is “a critical way that children develop language, express their creativity, expand their social skills, solve problems and generally learn about their world — all important abilities that will help them in kindergarten and well beyond.”

The report published by the Alliance for Childhood explained that standardized testing and preparation for those tests were a daily activity in most of the classrooms, even though it claims that such tests are of “questionable validity” for kids under the age of eight.

“Tutoring tots?” continued:

Kindergarteners are expected to perform at the level traditionally expected of first-graders — reading, for instance, by the end of the year, despite any solid support behind the change.

“There is absolutely no research showing that children who read at age 4 or 5 do better at age 10 or 12 than children who start reading in first grade,” [Almon] says. “But there is research showing if you push 4- and 5-year-olds too hard, it backfires.”

Sadly, professionals in the health field are seeing many negative consequences of “fast-tracking” kids. Carleton Kendrick, a Boston-area family therapist for over 30 years, explained in “Tutoring Tots?” that too much pressure to perform academically “can lead to a range of anxiety-related complaints and psychosomatic symptoms in youngsters that normally wouldn’t show up until the teen years or later … School stress can cause young children to be worried, overwhelmed, ashamed, guilty and even clinically depressed. For some, the stress can contribute to headaches, stomach upset, stuttering and insomnia.”

He continued:

“The parents think something is wrong with the child — and not the parents and teachers and education system,” says Kendrick.

“As a therapist who has seen many children become mentally and emotionally overwhelmed by being placed on this out of control, educational gerbil wheel, I hope that parents will wake up and say ‘no’ to hurrying their children through preschool and kindergarten,” he says.

I hope so, too. I hope that parents can say “no” to hurrying their children through preschool and kindergarten, and say “yes” to play.

But parents may not be able to stop these fast-track trends in schools. Their 5- and 6-year-old kids may have hop off the big yellow school bus, head into their classrooms and sit through days of drills, worksheets, and standardized test after standardized test.

If so, all the more reason to preserve “plenty of time for play at home.”

In our fast-paced, high-pressured world, our kids may not have the joy of learning through play in the school setting. But they can at least have the joy of learning through play at home.

This weekend, let’s find time for our kids to play with blocks and puppets, sandboxes and kitchen sets.

Let’s make time for play.


(Both photos: stock.xchng)

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