Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Push for Early Schooling

I have been tossing ideas for this post around in my mind ever since it was recommended to me. It seems that over the past several years, there has been quite a push towards earlier and earlier schooling for little ones, and also a stronger focus on academics at a younger age (not that this has resulted in higher achievement in our nation's high schoolers... in fact, I have seen fourth graders who can barely write a coherent sentence beginning with a capital letter and ending with a period!). First, there was this thing called pre-K. Now, I hear, there is a "pre-K3" program, which is a pre-pre-K (is that like being "engaged to be engaged"?), and it is becoming more and more common. I don't think it has yet made it into government sponsorship yet (somebody correct me if I am wrong - and maybe it has in other states, but I don't think it has here in GA).

I should start at the beginning. My writing tends to ramble and be long-winded, so I should try to organize my thoughts a little here (and stop using so many parenthesis!). Way back when I attended Kindergarten, in 1984-5, it was a half-day program. I am not sure if the public schools did full-day K at that point, but not many of the private schools in my area did. My K class was at a church preschool and had seven students total. Seven! My younger brothers attended K at our Catholic parish school, and I believe two of the three only went half-day. So, as late as 1990, there were still some half-day Kindergarten programs around. And we didn't need a full day. We still learned to begin to read (and without much pressure, either), and count, and also had time to play and do art projects, sing songs and learn finger plays.

I also have somewhat of a background in preschool/daycare. My mother taught at church preschools off and on when I was between the ages of four and 12, and after that she taught in preschools every year and then became a curriculum coordinator and finally a director. I always enjoyed volunteering at her preschools over the years when I had the chance. I also worked for pay at a day care center a few summers during high school and college. Then I went on to teach 3rd grade for two years in a public school and 4th grade for almost two years in a private school before the birth of my first daughter.

Of course, there are parents who have no choice but to put their children in daycare. A single parent has to work, for instance. But it seems that there is this push for earlier and earlier "learning experiences." Some families, even if they do not have a need for daycare, choose to put their young toddlers and preschool-age children into day-long, five day a week "school." I have heard the various reasons for this being so the child will be socialized and can meet friends, so the child won't be bored at home, so the child will get a head start academically, so the child will not "be behind" when he enters Kindergarten, because the child is "ready" (this often goes along with his being bored), or because the child needs to get used to being at school all day when he is young so it won't be a shock when he gets to Kindergarten. Even a half-day of preschool every day can be a lot on a little one, who really just needs to be able to have some quiet mornings at home with mother.

There is also an abundance of "learning toys" or "educational toys" for very young children. You'd be hard-pressed to walk down an aisle of Fisher-Price toys for ages birth-two years and not find a toy that does not sing the alphabet, count, or otherwise try to prattle off facts to the child. I will admit that I bought and asked for a few of these toys for my first child. After seeing more and more of them appearing on the shelves, I began to think about it and said, "No more!" Why does my 12 month old need to hear the alphabet being sung by an annoying electronic voice? Why can't toys just be fun nowadays rather than "educational?" We are in the midst of the "Baby Einstein" age.

Preschool aged children, and even Kindergarteners and first graders, are still just so little. They are prone to getting worn out easily, and seven to eight hours a day (or sometimes more in day care) is a long time to such a little person. When things like sitting at a desk, standing in line, and being quiet are added into the mix, it can be quite a lot for a five year old to take on.

To be clear, I am not anti-preschool or anything like that. Most preschools (in the traditional sense of the word) are just three or four hours a day and sometimes not even every day of the week. Many are play-based instead of academic-based. My daughter attends a Mothers Morning Out preschool - the last of its kind that I know of in this area. It is unique in that the children - regardless of age - can attend either one, two, or three days a week. Caroline goes once a week. It is a four hour period each week in which she can play with other kids, climb on the playground, do fun arts and crafts projects, and just play. I love that it has structure yet is all about playing. And I also love that she can just go once a week. Most preschools have classes for three and four year olds that meet a minimum of three days a week. If this one-day option did not exist, Caroline would not be in any preschool setting at all. I only wanted a day for her to just play with other kids, and I was lucky that this program exists here!

I have had a couple people ask me, "So, are you going to homeschool Caroline for pre-K?" I am not quite sure how to answer that. Ususally I begin with something about pre-K not being a requirement, and did you know that children are actually not required to attend school until first grade? So no, I am not officially "schooling" her this coming year. However, she will still be learning at home. She will be baking with me in the kitchen, taking walks in our neighborhood, exploring our backyard, working with art/craft supplies, and engaging in imaginative play. We will sing songs, read and tell stories, learn fingerplays, make crafts, celebrate days in the liturgical year, do chores, take care of our garden, play with water, say prayers and attend church... there will be lots of learning going on here informally.

There are many preschool curriculums available for purchase. Many are quite sweet, age-appropriate, and play-based. Many are laid out in a way that is similar to what I described in the above paragraph: songs for the week, cooking projects, crafts - sometimes all related to a central theme. I'm too cheap to buy a curriculum for preschool, ha ha... and with background in preschool settings, I have a good idea of what is involved in a preschool curriculum anyway. There are also preschool curriculums that focus on learning letter sounds and letter formation.

Honestly, I don't think I will buy a Kindergarten curriculum either. I don't have to report to the the state until first grade anyway, so K may be another informal year of learning at home. This doesn't mean there is no structure to our days - there is - but I don't think we'll be doing lots of pencil and paper work at a table quite yet. Craft projects at the table, yes... but not workbook-type learning. It is not developmentally appropriate to try to get a preschooler to sit at a table and form letters with a pencil... and my daughter already seems quite interested in letters at age four. She can write her name - some of which she just learned to copy on her own, and a few letters I showed her how to form when she asked me (and I just showed her once or twice when she asked, not sat and practiced with her). She has learned many letter sounds through being read to and asking questions... not drilling with flashcards. I don't think it is developmentally on target for a three or four year old to be writing and reading... not that it is impossible for them to do it, but that it is not what they should be doing for their age/maturity level/developmental stage. Since it seems like my daughter might actually be able to learn to read quite soon, then why not start teaching her, you might ask. Well, since she has been largely self-taught, and has been learning through daily life experiences, then why start anything "formal" now? It is not holding her back to refrain from academics until she is older... actually, most children who start out acadmecally bright very early on tend to level off and their peers catch up to about the same level. So trying to teach her to read and write at this age would be just putting the cart before the horse... it would be starting academics sooner, thus increasing the chance of academic "burnout" beginning earlier than it might otherwise, and it would be depriving her of the time she needs during these early years to just play. To not have to worry about life, but to just be a little kid. She will have plenty of time for formal learning in the future, but she will not get back this early childhood time in which to be carefree and playful, in which she can do real work with her hands and her body, which will help to prepare her for the future needs associated with developed motor skills.

So, when she asks me how to make a letter, I will show her once. Or she will self-direct herself to the alphabet puzzle we have and copy the letter from there. But I will not hold her hand and form the letter or write the letter on paper and ask her to copy it ten times. If she asks me what a word says, I will tell her. But I will not ask her to spell it out to me, ask her to try to read it herself, or go through the sounds of each letter in the word. She may end up asking me what the letter sounds are herself, anyway. I just don't want to impose an expectation of early academic learning on her - I am the adult and she is the child. She has no obligation to learn how to read and write, add and subtract, at age four. There will be a time for that, and when it comes, I will be here to guide her along.

For now, we will focus on taking walks, baking cookies, singing songs, reading stories, developing family traditions, and working around our house to make it a home.


Penny Murray said...

Found your blog recently and loved this post!!!!!

Kate said...

love this post too, and i think what you are doing at home with your girls far exceeds any formal program. i think pre-K should be just exposing your child to learning, not in a formal way, but in a curious way. let them learn about what interests them. teach them to want to know more. unfortunately in our society so many "stay at home moms" plant their children in front of the TV all day. the kids never learn to ask questions or get them answered. so for those kids going to preschool is better than being at home.

Anonymous said...

This is Kirstin from the API group. I just came across this post and couldn't agree more. I feel like I have to defend our choice to stay at home with my children (4yrs. and 7mo.) every once in a while. All the preschools or day cares in my area are way too academic for my taste. If there was a play based setting close by I would maybe consider sending my oldest for a few mornings. But I really don't have to have this: 'Today we'll be talking about the letter A'. It is enough to fend off all the well-meaning relatives that seem to constantly hover over their laptops ready to find some ABC websites for her.
I remember our friends that moved away. Questioned how their son (then 2) was doing at day care they proudly answered: He knows his ABC's and he can add.
Do they really think that will make him a genius on day????