What can you remember about your preschool, kindergarten or early school years?
Possibly not a lot, but whatever you do remember probably bears little resemblance to the preschools and kindergarten of today.
There has been a trend for preschools to become more structured, and to offer more formalised learning programs, leaving less time for unstructured play and simple fun.
Many parents and teachers will argue that this is a good thing. That it improves their child’s “school readiness” which leads to better learning outcomes in primary and later in secondary school. That it is necessary to give children the best opportunity in today's hypercompetitive world.
A new book by Yale University Professor Erika Christakis argues that the trend to push academic goals down to preschool is actually not good for children.
In “The Importance of Being Little: What Pre-Schoolers Really Need from Grownups”, she sounds a warning that American preschools are becoming too ‘academic”, and how that is putting unnecessary stress on children, parents and teachers.
Is this happening in Australia and New Zealand also?
She says, “Because few adults can remember details of their own preschool and kindergarten days, it can be hard to appreciate just how much the early education landscape has been transformed over the past two decades”.
The changes to preschool include:
- More time spent on workbooks and worksheets with less time on music and art
- Higher expectations of young children – for example that they can sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper
- Emphasis on the children completing their “work” before they are allowed to play
- Greater focus on the written word at the expense of oral language
Erika Christakis says, “The real focus in preschool should not be just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening. We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children's understanding. Conversation is gold. It's the most efficient early learning system we have".
So in America, and I think to some extent also in Australia and New Zealand, these changes may be making preschool a bit more pressured than when you and I were young.
But this may not be a bad thing, if it leads to children that are ready to learn and ultimately a more well educated population. But does it?
Not according to Dr Christakis. She says that recent research has found that although children who had attended preschool showed more "school readiness" than children who had not been to preschool, this apparent advantage had evaporated by the second grade.
It was as if too much formal instruction at an earlier age reduced the children's enthusiasm for learning as they got older.
So maybe we need to be careful not to lose the fun of preschool.