Career Ready Kindergarten

“The future prepared for is a long way off; plenty of time will intervene before it becomes a present. Why be in a hurry about getting ready for it?” — John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916)

There is a growing misconception that giving a child the best start in life means unlocking their academic potential as early as possible. Increasingly, kindergartens are sacrificing playtime for greater academic seat time in pursuit of distant future rewards. Career ready kindergarten has arrived.

Below I have paired two contrasting kindergarten videos that caught my attention this week. One shows a “perfect start to the day” at a ‘no excuses’ Brooklyn elementary school focused on ‘college readiness’ “from day one”. The other is a Montessori inspired kindergarten in Tokyo featuring an innovative design which gives children the “freedom to range around the classroom and learn via discovery.”

The videos piqued my interest because, over the past few months, my wife and I have engaged in a f̶i̶e̶r̶c̶e̶ b̶a̶t̶t̶l̶e̶ passionate discussion about how and where we educate our children. As our eldest edges ever closer to kindergarten age, it’s decision time, and we are on the clock.

So which is better, kindergarten with an academic or play-based focus?

“They can relax and chat but they know they have to stay in their seats and keep their voices at a certain level.”

“The free plan design encourages independence and collaboration, without forcing children to sit still and silent for long periods.”

What is the purpose of school?

“Every parent wants the best for their own children…The issue is that not all the parents really know what is best for kids — they think it’s high grades, and that they have to be better than others, and that’s not the case.” — Pasi Sahlberg, From play to pressure; a Finnish perspective on Australian schools.

At a time when children’s mental health issues are on the rise, more kids than ever are overweight and obese due to sedentary lifestyles, and risk-averse parenting has strangled opportunities for unstructured free play, asking five-year-olds to sit for hours to learn discrete facts, motivated by the possibility of wealth and success in the distant future, just seems like a recipe for disaster. But educating for future-readiness is hardly a new idea.

In 1916 John Dewey argued that using school as preparation for a remote future rendered the work of teacher and student “mechanical and slavish.” More recently, Dr Susan Engel, author of The End of the Rainbow: How Educating For Happiness (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools, proclaimed,

We are so hell-bent on teaching disadvantaged children skills (both academic ones, such as reading, and social ones, such as obeying rules) that will lead to a job that we fail to teach them the pleasure of being part of a literate community, how to make their work meaningful, or how to draw strength from the group — skills that might offer them a satisfying life. Just as bad is that middle-class and privileged children are pushed to view every stage of their schooling as a platform for some future accomplishment ending in wealth. This deprives them of the chance to figure out what they really care about, how to think about complex topics with open minds, and how to find a sense of purpose in life.

Personally, I don’t look at the knowledge-rich, strict-warm, procedure and routine based learning in the first video and think “I want that for my kid!” In programs like this, kids don’t just learn to read and write, they also learn that ‘success’ requires compliance, correct posture and correct answers. They understand that learning is motivated by punishments and rewards. They know that the teacher is the most important person in the learning process.

According to Dr David Whitebread, the physical benefits of play are mostly well understood by educators and parents, but “the emotional and cognitive benefits of play are not nearly so well recognised, either by parents and the general community, or by educational and other policy makers.” In contrast to the school readiness crowd, Professor Engel believes,

“School should be a place where children feel joy, satisfaction, purpose, and a sense of human connection, and where they acquire the habits and skills that will enable them to lead happy lives as adults.”

But at the end of the day, for parents who choose academic readiness kindergarten programs over more balanced play-based programs, the sacrifices are worth it, right?

Little To Gain, Much To Lose

“The sooner a child starts reading the better. Who’s got time to play? Children must learn to read in pre-k or kindergarten, or they will be left behind, never catch up to their peers, and suffer life altering consequences. This is how many adults think, the stress is palpable.” — Pasi Sahlberg, Let The Children Play.

In a 2015 report titled Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose, Professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige reported that “research shows greater gains from play-based programs than from preschools and kindergartens with a more academic focus” and that “no research documents long-term gains from learning to read in kindergarten.”

“The age of onset of reading is not predictive of ultimate intellectual aptitude or achievement”- Carol Black, A Thousand Rivers.

As Pasi Sahlberg notes in Let The Children Play, many children are just not developmentally ready to learn to read in kindergarten. Highlighting the work of Professor Carlsson-Paige, Sahlberg states “there is no research showing long term advantages to reading at [age] 5 compared to reading at 6 or 7.” And “The research is clear, faster is not better when it comes to reading in the early years.”

As for kindergarten, it could be argued that in some ways, it is the new third grade. How? It used to be that kids were given time to academically grow at their own speed without being declared failures by first and certainly second grade if they couldn’t read. Kids intellectually develop at different rates, and one of the most damaging aspects of the “earlier is not only better but necessary” philosophy is that this natural process is no longer respected. — Valerie Strauss, Kindergarten the new first grade? It’s actually worse than that.

So not only do school-readiness programs rob children of the opportunity to develop vital skills and habits through free play, they do so without significant long-term benefit. As if that wasn’t bad enough, keep in mind that some families pay for this privilege, wrongly believing the scarcity, exclusivity and expense associated with many of these programs is ‘what is best’ for kids.

“Now that kindergarten serves as a gatekeeper, not a welcome mat, to elementary school, concerns about school preparedness kick in earlier and earlier. A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool. As a result, expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful.” — Erika Christakis, The New Preschool is Crushing Kids.

I will leave you with this quote from play advocate Dr Peter Gray:

“If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.”

It is past time to push back. Beware the career-ready kindergarten.

Some of the books and articles that informed this blog post:

Beyond Champions and Pirates

A Thousand Rivers - Carol Black

HRP’s Books of the Month — December, The End of the Rainbow

How the New Preschool Is Crushing Kids

Children today are suffering a severe deficit of play - Peter Gray | Aeon Essays