Too much, too soon?

written by Jeanne

For the last twenty-five years, numerous parents have approached me with concerns that their child was wasting time spending a year in “preschool” because they felt he or she was ready for more formal education. I have also heard concerns from expat parents about the Swiss practice of keeping children in kindergarten for two years and the late entry age for first grade. As a preschool teacher at the International School Basel, I was asked to teach a highly structured, challenging preschool program for 4 -5 year olds based on the highest standards for constructivist education. Yet there were parents who believed that the children in my classroom were simply “playing” because there were neither worksheets nor homework.

Most of the parents I speak with are highly educated and all are deeply committed to wanting the best for their children. What is creating the increasing pressure on parents to push their children into school sooner than might be advisable?

One factor is the proliferation of information about brain development: as we uncover the wonders of the brain and its development, we are in awe of its capabilities. For example, we now know that children are much more capable of learning a second language in the early (“window of opportunity”), rather than later years of their development. We begin to think that, if children have these amazing capacities for learning, then why not push them to learn more and sooner than has been the tradition? The child’s mind has become a big concern to modern parents – and “big business” to entrepreneurs.

Another factor is the general speed at which modern society functions: the pressure on parents for their children to keep up with their peers is high. Concerned parents place their children in formal playgroups to give them educational opportunities and then worry about how well the children compare. Governments in the last 25 years have stepped in to control the educational systems of their countries, pushing the “basics” with a false notion that higher test scores from students will give the country an edge in global market competition. And yet, recent research in the UK to uncover the reason for “burn out” among 3rd and 4th grade students speculates that children might have been introduced to the mechanics of reading and writing too early. The report points out that countries such as Finland or the Swiss-German part of Switzerland, who wait until children are older, to teach reading and math, have better success rates (test scores) in the later years. Why would this be so?

What has been lost in the push to provide children with as much as possible as early as possible is a basic understanding of how the child’s mind operates during the preschool years. Going back to the “basics” is to try to fathom how the child constructs his or her knowledge and how best we can support real learning. Learning psychologists posit that the child constructs meaning from manipulating real objects in their world. From there, children eventually develop the ability to abstract and, only when they have made a mental leap that allows them to manipulate symbols, can they develop true reading and mathematical comprehension. Children cannot be drilled to understand, just as they cannot be mentally drilled to ride a bike.

Learning to count to 10 does not reflect a child’s grasp of what a number is, or how numbers work to represent quantities. Flash cards that represent simple addition and subtraction exercises are tools for improving memory, not for deciphering how quantity changes when numbers are manipulated. All the play activities that one witnesses in a high quality preschool are the very experiences that help children build an understanding of number, quantity, measurement, space, time, problem-solving and the other dimensions of mathematics. All the play activities that involve language activities (including pretend play), build not only the basis for learning how to communicate with language through reading and writing, but create an “intrigue” for decoding the system of letters and words that leads to reading for comprehension.

As we strive to provide the best opportunities for our children to grow into curious, happy, enthusiastic learners, let us not forget the basics: there is a lot more that goes into learning than the mechanics of reading and math.

Attitudes of persistence, self-regulation, risk-taking; social skills to be able to integrate with peers and work alongside them, to use them and one’s teachers as resources; a sense of competence and a willingness to explore – all these factors can affect a child’s later development. There is no need to rush children - in the end they will not learn any faster or better. In fact, they may well be hampered by feelings of incompetence because they do not understand what is expected of them. The years before entering formal school are not wasted years of play; a lot of important learning has to take place before a child is truly “ready” for school.


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