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The Most Effective Learning Tool

Publication Date: 2007-12-09

We are robbing young children of important developmental skills in order to stuff so-called reading skills into them.

Dec. 8, 2007

A few days before my daughter started pre-Kindergarten, she was asked to come in and be tested. As part of the test, the teacher asked my daughter to write her name on a piece of paper. My four-year-old daughter looked up at me with huge, puzzled eyes. I looked at the teacher with equally huge, puzzled eyes. Write her name? On the first day of pre-Kindergarten? My daughter didnât know how to write her name, much less hold a pencil.

My elementary school colleagues have told me that this first meeting has traditionally been a time for the new student and the teacher to get to know each other. But there was no conversation about what my daughter liked to read, what she liked to do, or anything else that might have told the teacher who she was. It didnât seem to matter who my daughter was. Rather, the issue was â" how well can she do on this test? It saddened me to think that my daughterâs very first impression of school was based on taking a test and failing it.

Since that time, my daughter regularly brings home worksheets that she did in school. Theyâre photocopies of activities like sorting, graphing, letter tracing, letter recognition. While sheâs at school, sheâs very busy. The teacher has them working in âcenters.â Each center is focused on a specific task, usually associated with a literacy skill. According to the teachers that Iâve spoken to, these skills were the sorts of things that six and seven year olds used to do in first grade. Now four and five year olds are being asked to do them in pre-Kindergarten.

She came home the other day in an incredibly grumpy mood. âHow was school today?â I asked. âTerrible,â she answered. âWhy? What happened?â âI want to play with my friends,â she said. âDonât you get a chance to play with your friends?â âNo,â she replied.

Next year, if my daughter attends the same school, she will be in school all day. As a Kindergartner, she will also be very busy. She will have exactly 20 minutes of recess, and then sheâll get back to work.

Hereâs what Iâm concerned about. Iâm concerned that weâre setting developmentally inappropriate goals for very young children. Iâm worried that weâre setting some of them up to fail. We may succeed in getting some of them to read, write, and complete math equations precociously. But we may also be creating a cohort of four and five-year-old children who look at school as a place where they simply donât belong, as a place that is too stressful and too competitive. As a place that is devoid of fun. I ask you: do we really want 4-year-olds to deal with stress and competition, of feelings of intellectual inadequacy, in pre-kindergarten, in the grade BEFORE the beginning grade of elementary school?

Children learn to play together by playing together. They learn how take turns by taking turns, how to share by sharing, how to resolve conflicts that come up by resolving conflicts that come up. In order to learn how to do these things, children need to experience them firsthand. They need to DO these things. But if they are not being given the time to do them, then how are they supposed to learn them?

Whether we should place such a heavy emphasis on academic skill development at such an early age is one of the great questions facing early childhood educators. Is this a developmentally appropriate practice? Maybe. Maybe not. We donât know. None of us know. Thatâs because this heavy skills-based, academic approach has never been taken before in public schools in this country. Ever. No long-term, longitudinal studies have been done because weâve just started.

Yet this lack of data has not stopped us from forging full steam ahead. We think this is good for kids. We think it will benefit them. But we donât actually know what effect itâs having, nor do we know what effect it will have 5, 10, or 15 years from now.

Where Iâm from, we call this âdriving with your eyes closed.â Others call it hoping. Call it what you will, but the fact of the matter is that our children â" my daughter included â" are participating in a giant experiment that none of us agreed to. Our children are guinea pigs, to put it nicely. Others might call them lab rats.

To be honest with you, itâs not so much the addition of academics that worries me as it is the subtraction of everything else. We seem to have lost the balance here. So you spend more time doing skill building. What are you getting rid of to make more time for the skill building? Art programs, music programs, foreign languages and â" yes â" recess are being cut to make more time for skills, specifically math and reading skills. Starting in pre-K.

Simply put, pre-K and Kindergarten children are not being given the broad-based education that parents like me want. They are being given a heavy dose of academic/cognitive skills, but they are being given very little in the way of social and emotional development.

I understand the need to close the achievement gap. I understand the need to do this sooner rather than later, and to target young children just entering school to make sure they donât fall behind.

But as we try to correct one problem, are we unknowingly creating another?

So what do I want? I want what my daughter wants: to be able to spend time with her friends, playing and being a little kid. She doesnât have any kids to play with on her block, so school is the only place she has any chance to socialize and interact with her peers. I want her to have the chance to make friends. I want her to be given the opportunity to play. I want her to learn how to share and solve problems with her peers. I want this more than I want her to be phonemically aware. There will be time for such academic pursuits when she's a bit older. But there's only so much time she's allowed to be a little girl.

Lest you think this sounds a bit touchy-feely and out of synch with todayâs calls for accountability, let me close with this. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development did a study in 2004 looking at literacy and reading skills for 15-year-olds. You know which country was the top-ranked producer of readers in the world? Finland. Of the 30 countries studied, the United States placed 15th.

So what does Finland do? Children in Finland start learning to read in the first grade. At the age of seven. The Fins believe that play is the most effective learning tool in the early years and sets the stage for a lifelong love of learning.

I want this for all young children, not just my daughter. I want all children to have the opportunity to develop intellectually, socially, and emotionally. But most importantly, I want children to be allowed to have childhoods.

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