Academic pre-schools: Too much, too soon?
By Elaine Gallagher The term «academic pre-school», for the purposes of this article, refers to a school which has organized, academic classes (i.e. reading, writing, […]
By Elaine Gallagher
The term «academic pre-school», for the purposes of this article, refers to a school which has organized, academic classes (i.e. reading, writing, worksheets, and homework) for children before they are 5 – 6 years old, before entering first grade of primary school.
In the USA, Canada, and Finland there is only one year of public pre-school, called «Kindergarten», (German term: «children’s garden») for children, before they enter first grade of primary. Finland’s Kindergarten begins for children age 6, not younger. In USA and Canada, Kindergarten can begin as early as age 5 1/2, depending on the state or province.
In Mexico, there are public kindergartens for children ages 3 and up: «Kinder 1, Kinder 2, and Kinder 3», with Kinder 3 having children about 5 years of age.
The USA, Canada, and Finland do not teach writing or reading skills until first grade of primary, in order for children’s gross motor skills to be fully developed before emphasizing fine motor skills. They concentrate on social and physical development, music, art, play, and oral fluency in two or more languages.
Kindergartens in Canada and Finland, and in some USA states (usually those on the border with Mexico) are bilingual, English and Spanish (USA), English and French (Canada), and English and Finnish, plus exposure to Russian or Swedish (Finland).
The «official» philosophy of the Mexican Secretary of Education is the same as in the USA, Canada, and Finland…
not to teach writing and reading until first grade of primary so that students will be able to fully development gross motor skills prior to the development of fine motor skills.
Why? Because many research studies since the 1950’s have been confirming that dyslexia can be exhibited by 15% of children in 2nd-3rd grade of primary if they were rushed into writing by ages 3, 4, 5, prior to full development of their gross motor skills. (by 40 years of observations by Montessori and Piaget; confirmed neurologically in 2010 by Dr.Tomas Ortiz, and others)
Yet, despite much evidence to the contrary, eager parents and zealous schools or teachers in Mexico, and elsewhere, have the idea (NOT the proof) that «their» children are smarter, the school is better, if all the students are reading and writing (both manuscript and cursive!) by 5 years of age, BEFORE entering first grade.
Perpetuating this fallacy are many first grade teachers who expect that children arrive in first grade already reading and writing!
I ask you, parents and educators: WHAT IS THE RUSH?
Really, truly, think about that question: What is the rush? What is the difference between a child who can already write at age 5 and one who begins to write at age 6?
Do you want to risk YOUR child’s future? Could your child be among the 15% genetically predisposed to exhibit dyslexia? Are you willing to take the chance?
Early writing, or even reading, are not necessarily signs of higher intelligence. Much more indicative of intelligence is the vocabulary level and oral fluency of a child or adult. If you are fluent with words, you will easily learn to read and then to write creatively, not simply forming letters.
Once upon a time, many children didn’t attend preschool at all, and those who did spent their mornings cutting, pasting, and playing house or playing with clay or building blocks. These days, preschool is a rite of passage, and “academic” preschools that promise to prepare kids for the cutthroat world of first grade are becoming more and more popular. But are they a good idea?
Not really, say many experts. “Research…shows that academic preschools offer children no long-term advantages academically, but make children more anxious,” says Roberta Golinkoff, author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less.
While every preschool is different, there are some traits the best ones share, according to Martha E. Mock, assistant professor at the University of Rochester Warner School of Education. “Young children learn best through meaningful interaction with real materials and caring adults and their peers, not through the drilling of isolated skills,” she says.
Child development experts say that children in academic preschools often learn math and reading at the expense of their social skills. Kids from play-based programs usually catch up academically, while kids from academic backgrounds may never catch up socially. This can be devastating to their self-esteem.
Not surprisingly, supporters of academic preschools heartily disagree. “Children at that early age are like little sponges, and the more information you can expose them to, the better,” says Shirley Mace, administrator at the Stratford School in Los Gatos, California, who points out that the schedule includes time for play. Nonetheless, she adds, the program is “not for an overly active child…It’s best for one who can sit and focus for 20-30 minutes.”
Plenty of parents say their kids are up for that challenge. “He’s very curious, asks a lot of questions, understands things at a deep level – overall he’s cognitively advanced for his age,” says one mother whose son attended an academic preschool.
Contrary to the stereotype of pushy parents, some families send one child to an academic preschool and their siblings to a traditional play-based school, depending on the child’s personality. Others choose three days per week at an academic program and two days per week at a play-based school, hoping to achieve the best of both worlds.
Whether you feel your child or the students in your school will thrive best in an environment with dress-up corners and sand tables, or one with a regular academic curriculum, the good news is, there’s plenty of choice out there. Just make sure that in addition to any worksheets, there’s plenty of time for free time. Because play should be a major component of every child’s day!
An excellent book, called «Play» (2014), shows the importance of free playtime in children’s lives. Children learn through play, so when young children are required to do much academic work, worksheets and homework, we actually reduce their play-time and stifle their long-term mental growth.
What’s my personal opinion, you may be wondering?
Simple: School should be a place to enjoy, to feel good about yourself, to learn, and to acquire positive habits and values!
I was born in 1942, entered Kindergarten in 1948, where all we did was play, color, play, cut & paste, play, sing, pretend, and play. The thing I absolutely hated was «nap time», but I escaped by hiding in the big dollhouse whenever the teacher was looking the other way.
I learned to read and write in first grade. I was almost 7 years old. I loved school! The mental challenges, open questions, the consistency of a schedule, practicing to do things better and neater.
I still love to read and write, and learned those skills in school by teachers who read aloud to us daily, who had daily structured writing time, so we actually learned how to do original writing, not boring patterns or grammar rules to memorize. We learned grammar by using correct grammar, subtly corrected by teacher when we made errors.
There rarely were worksheets to complete, and practically no homework, throughout primary and middle school was practically non-existent. If there was any homework, it was to study for a spelling quiz or to answer the catechism questions for religion class.
This is the same kind of education I saw for my children (now ages 50 and 46), in both private and public schools in USA. But by the next generation, my grandchildren, (now ages 15 to 24) education had taken a dangerous, negative metamorphosis, with emphasis on high stakes, standardized exams, teacher pressure, and memorization of data. Critical thinking was non-existent, not in the teachers and not provided for the children.
Homework had become so excessive (3 – 4 hours in 4th grade) that I actually went to my grandson’s teachers (departmentalized so there were several), to complain that he had come to live with us for a year to learn Spanish, but we had no time to cook together, to go shopping together, or to have fun together, because of all the worthless, tedious homework.
Much to my shock and surprise, the teachers were not apologetic, nor even polite. One teacher said, «Welcome to the real world of education, Doctor Gallagher. We are here to see that your grandson passes the Texas state exams. I don’t have time to enjoy those things with my own personal children, either.»
Then I went to the school principal with my concerns, armed with facts and evidence of one-week’s homework assignments. She did listen, and was extremely surprised at the amount of work kids were expected to do, from Kindergarten upward. Because the school was departmentalized, children had a different teacher for each subject, and changed classes every hour, as if they were in high school…each teacher giving 30-45 minutes of homework daily, and even more on weekends.
I asked the principal: «Where was quality time with family? Where was time just to be a kid, enjoying life?»
The principal acted. She sent a notice to all 55 teachers and all parents, stating that homework could not exceed 1/2 hour a night total, NOT per teacher. Then she re-organized the school, for the next year, to have self-contained classes (one teacher for all subjects) so there could be more correlation among the academic subjects, not isolated by teacher. Yes, it was more difficult for the teachers to teach several subjects, but it was much better for the students’ learning in primary grades.
That 4th grade year, in May, my grandson received an award medallion to wear around his neck for the highest test scores in the Texas State exams.
Ironically, and sadly, when our grandson returned home to Maine for 5th grade, (yes, having learned Spanish living with us), his scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for 5th grade reflected almost the same scores as he had performed on the ITBS in Maine in 3rd grade!
In other words, for all the 4th grade drill and kill exercises, emphasis on daily exam practice for the high stakes Texas State exams, excessive hours of homework, he virtually gained NO academic growth during 4th grade, as measured by the ITBS.
Children learn to love school and to learn academically beginning in pre-school, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th grades, through middle school, and beyond… by the use of play, physical activities, music, art, interaction with others in social and academic situations, development of critical thinking skills by use of challenging, thought-provoking questions, by practice (not «drill»), by the integration of academic subjects, flexibility, cooperative learning, projects, creative activities, positive teachers, developing organizational skills and good work habits…….
All these positive school experiences lead to positive attributes of self-esteem, ability to work in cooperative situations, empathy for other, self-motivation and self-initiative.
These are the goals of a really great educational program and what we all should be supporting for all of our children, from pre-school and beyond.
(Thanks to Hannah Boyd for some of these comments.
Additional researchers also have been quoted in the article.)