Should we really be teaching preschool kids how to read and write? It may be an unpopular opinion, but I think the answer is “no,” and many experts agree. Read on to learn why.
Should We Really Be Teaching Preschool Kids How to Read and Write?
Let me say upfront, I think preschool can be a wonderful experience for kids. It gives them a chance to socialize and meet new people. Often, those people come from different backgrounds, so our children experience other cultures and learn about diversity. And yes, it’s a great educational experience, too…when it’s done right.
Here’s the thing- I don’t necessarily think that it is being “done right” anymore. I think we’re trying to teach very young kids too much, too fast, often at the expense of their mental health. Now, before you flex those typing fingers and launch into a 500-word comment about how wrong you think I am, please hear me out. If you still disagree, feel free to say so.
Preschools today teach kids too much, too fast.
Preschool was so different when we were little than it is today. It’s hard to remember exactly what we learned. We were just three, after all. Still, I bet if you focus on the overall feelings you had during that time in your life, you’ll remember how much fun you had. We made new friends, we played fun games, and yes, we even learned a few things along the way.
More than anything, preschool was all about preparing us for the transition to “big kid school.” It taught us all about being part of a group, which was especially beneficial for only children. Basically, it gave us the much-needed social skills we needed to succeed in elementary school. That’s if we even went, of course. Preschool didn’t really become popular until the late 90s and early 2000s. If we didn’t go, no problem! We had half-day kindergarten (complete with nap time) to help us ease the transition.
We certainly didn’t spend all day sitting in a hard chair learning how to read War and Peace, write the next great American novel, and do complex calculus problems. Okay, I’m exaggerating just a bit, but at the rate things are going, that may not be an exaggeration for long.
Today’s preschools seem to spend more and more time focusing on a strict academic curriculum and less time on actually letting children be children. There’s a time and place for everything, including strict learning regimens. In my opinion, preschool is neither that time nor that place.
Preschool isn’t the time or the place for strict academics
Kids have so few opportunities to just be kids these days. By age 5, we expect them to sit still in their seats for hours at a time, without talking, without fidgeting, without even getting up to stretch. If they’re very lucky, they may get to go outside for 10 minutes for recess. Of course, more and more schools are doing away with that entirely, so they may not even get that.
By age 8, our schools start issuing standardized tests. Every lesson plan centers around cramming as much math, language, and science information into them as possible during the first semester so that they can make their school look good by getting a great score. Things like art, music, and even gym class get shoved into the “specials” category, taught only on alternating weeks.
Forget middle school and high school. Homework practically becomes a second full-time job (regular school is already the first). So, what does that leave? When do our kids actually get to be kids?
Infancy and preschool. That’s it. That’s all they have left. The only “free to be me” years of their entire lives. Now we want to take that away from them too? That just seems like a recipe for mental health disaster to me. Turns out, at least a few experts agree.
What do experts say about teaching preschool kids too much, too fast?
Turns out, experts have a lot to say about teaching preschool kids too much, too fast. Let’s go over a few highlights from some of the top names in child psychology and development.
Preschool kids don’t even have the cognitive ability to grasp complex academics
According to an article in the Education Next Journal, David Elkind (a professor of child development at Tufts University), explains preschoolers may not even have the cognitive ability to grasp some of the complex concepts we’re trying to teach them. Take math, for instance.
As Elkind says, “It is only at age six or seven, when they have attained what Piaget calls “concrete operations,” that children can construct the concept of a “unit,” the basis for understanding the idea of interval numbers. “
He closes with, “If we want all of our children to be the best that they can be, we must recognize that education is about them, not us.” That’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it? Too often, we come up with these grand ideas about what’s in our children’s best interest without actually thinking about the very beings that we’re trying to help- our kids themselves.
Early academic training may cause long-term damage
On Psychology Today, Dr. Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, talks about how early academics can actually cause long-lasting harm to our children. He starts by mentioning the number of preschool teachers who completely disagree with this new preschool trend.
Dr. Gray writes, “They can see firsthand the unhappiness generated, and they suspect that the children would be learning much more useful lessons through playing, exploring, and socializing, as they did in traditional nursery schools and kindergartens. Their suspicions are well validated by research studies.”
He discusses numerous studies to back up that statement, but one really stood out to me. A long-term “well-controlled” study followed children from preschool through early adulthood. While very early on, the academic gains seemed to support the idea of teaching preschool kids complex academic skills, things took a very different turn as they reached their teen years.
“By age 15 those in the Direct Instruction group had committed, on average, more than twice as many “acts of misconduct” than had those in the other two groups, “Gray writes. “ Even more dramatic, by age 23, a larger portion of those kids had felony arrest records.
Now, that doesn’t mean that teaching your preschooler to read and write is going to turn him into a lifelong criminal. However, it does go to show that teaching kids so much at such an early age may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
All work and no play- a troublesome trend
A 2009 research paper by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign explains that parents and teachers who “favor traditional classroom-style learning over free, unstructured playtime in preschool and kindergarten may actually be stunting a child’s development instead of enhancing it.”
According to Anne Haas Dyson, one of the experts cited in the paper, playtime is a “fundamental avenue” for learning. “Children learn the way we all learn: through engagement, and through construction,” Dyson says. “They have to make sense of the world, and that’s what play or any other symbolic activity does for children.”
She also explains that “attempts by parents and educators to create gifted children by bombarding them with information is well-intentioned but ultimately counterproductive.”
If we’re being honest with ourselves, she hit the nail right on the head when she said, “create gifted children.” More than ever before, today’s parents seem to be in some sort of competition with each other to prove who has the smartest child.
Parent A starts the conversation, saying how proud she is that her kindergartner read an entire Dr. Seuss book by herself. You know, something relatively age-appropriate. Parent B chimes in with, “Oh, that’s nice! Of course, Sally was reading Seuss at age 2.” Then, here come’s Parent C with, “Seuss, shmoosh! My Susie was reading Shakespeare at age 1!” Personally, I think every child is “gifted” and these labels cause more harm than good.
Kids deserve a chance to be kids, and preschools shouldn’t take that a way
Bottom line, kids deserve a chance to just be kids. Preschools- or even elementary schools- shouldn’t take that away from them. Instead, they should work with our children’s natural ability to learn through play. The rest will fall into place.
Once they hit age 5, our kids will be spending the rest of their childhood buried under a mountain of academic assignments. Giving them a little time to just be children isn’t going to wreck their future academic success. After all, we weren’t conjugating verbs by age 4, and most of us turned out just fine! Oh, and when you ARE ready to send your kids to school, make sure you check out this post about how to keep your kids’ backpacks from wrecking their backs!
Donna perich says
Every child is different… and develop differently. I think it should be based on the child’s interest. It’s preschool- they can have a program for kids who want that kind of stimulation for their brain. My son loved learning and knew his alphabet, numbers, geometric shapes including trapezoid and parallelogram- at age 1. He taught himself to read by 3. And was tested at 6 with a sixth grade reading and comprehension level. Some kids just love to learn and need that kind is stimulation. We never forced any of it on him- he’s now 30 Andrew never had one issue with the law, drugs, alcohol, fighting….. and had doing amazing things in his life and very successful in everything he does. He’s confident and hard working-
Schools need to Stop putting kids in lumped groups. Focus on the child’s individual needs. Everyone learns differently. Standardized tests suck! Not every child tests well-
Children are a lot smarter than adults give them credit for. Their brains are sponges. We should be teaching them a second language in first grade. Other Countries have been teaching English that young. We are way behind in education and allowing the government to dumb our children down. We should be demanding more funding in education! Our children are our future!
Nothing wrong with encouraging learning at an early as long as they’re enjoying it. Imo
Heather Todd says
Yes, let kids be kids but some will be ready to extend themselves so let them but with no pressure. They can learn to read and write but you don’t have to give them tests on it. Any pre-school teacher worth their salt knows what little human sponges the young’uns are. In overseas countries they are already at least bi-lingual.
Karen Levi says
Being bilingual is different from learning academics; young children are receptive to learning languages as preschoolers, different skill than reading and writing.
Sheryl Faulconer says
As a preschool teacher I get what your saying but if a child wants to know go with what the child wants. Let them lead what they want to learn. Some want to learn to read when they are three let them.
Gwendolyn Martin says
As an retired teacher/librarian, I totally agree.
E. Salerno says
I feel the same way. We have more so called learning problems when we push young children to do tasks for which they are not ready. We can’t make a child walk before the child is ready. Why do we think we can demand academic activities before the child is ready for them. We are causing so many school and emotional problems. I base my opinion on many years in the classroom. Children want to learn; it comes naturally in an appropriate setting full of experiences and discovery. Sometimes we take that desire and destroy it when we push them too quickly.
janice ward says
Everything you have written, I absolutely agree with. I taught kgn way back in the 70s 80s and 90s. I saw the progression of the philosophy connected to early learners. What was old became new again as it turned back to teaching academics to little children. How wrong that is. Not sure what stage we’re at today.
Deborah M Donovan says
Thank you for this. While I might have questions about the study about felons, I agree with the basic premise.
Betty May says
Kids need to be kids and learn to have fun together before they engage in the serious stuff of reading, writing etc. Playgroups for kids aged 3 taught kids to socialise with other kids and make friends before they started school. I can remember the mother and baby group I joined, which was good for me as well as my daughter. If young families move to a new area it can be very lonely for the mum and baby, so to make new friends for a couple of hours was a very good idea to help kids to socialise with their peers so by the time they started infant school at around 5 they were used to socialising and were ready to learn academically. Also, very importantly, they had already made some friends they would have for many years through their whole school life.
Janet Fisher says
As a retired teacher I totally agree with this article. Janet Fisher February 5, 2022
Ann jose says
The whole school system is flawed , so much pressure on the pupils of all ages hence the rise in mental health amongst the young.
I believe it’s time for a whole rethink of the school systems in this country.
They need to be taught the basics then whatever they have a flair for focus more on them subjects then you will see how well they flourish.
Naughty kids are naughty kids.
I can honestly say the only thing I use from school days is Maths English bit of science but more practical lessons always learn more.
I have 5 grandchildren and worry for there future.
lisa humphries says
could not agree more. I see high school juniors having meltdowns over the college process. And if so many of us agree with this article WHY IS IT STILL HAPPENING? I am so tired of the hours of homework for over-scheduled kids. I absolutely hate the direction our country is going in. And why in the world do parents think that having a smart kid is the goal?? I’d much rather have a kid with emotional intelligence. And there are so many other wonderful and valuable qualities a kid can have besides being book smart – being creative, being athletic, etc.! And did you know there are 8 different kinds of intelligence? I hate having to protect my kids against society’s ridiculous ladder to success.
Nadine Boothe-Gooden says
This is definitely food for thought.
Maryflynn peckerman says
I soooo totally agree. Can this article be shared. Went to catholic school kindergarten and played for one full yr , well the rest is hx.
Nancy S. Ryan says
As a retired professor of E.C. Education I totally agree! Every educator (including parents) should read Dr. David Elkind’s book:: The Hurried Child”to understand this concept.
“Play is a child’s work”. Children learn so much through play .. building with blocks is learning, pretending is learning… etc. Children are innately learning every minute. Structure the environment to allow children to experiment and question freely and safely. There is so much “learning” going on.
Gwen Eschliman says
There IS hope if this many peop;e agree! What ever happened to Experiential? In the 1970’s, ’80s. 90s we believed in offering experiences to our preschoolers. – experiences that they probably wouldn’t get at home, and probably not with other children. Those experiences included LOTS of beginning math concepts, LOTS of beginning science concepts and LOTS of beginning reading without trying to make those precious babes read, write and ‘do sums’ before their little minds and bodies were ready.
I totally agree, kids used to learn social skills, sharing, taking turns, enjoying story time, asking questions, finger painting, play doh & just being creative. I think they are losing out not only at pre school but also at home. I know many teachers that say the same thing. Many children are handed a tablet by age 3, they never look up after that.
Makes me so sad for kids born in the last decade & the future decade ad well. 😢
Alice Elliott. says
This is a wonderful, lesson for all .Please let children be Children.🥰💕💕💕
I agree 100% with this article! Too much too fast. I would love to hear your opinion on the downside to all these children who are put in Day Care facilities for years before they are even preschool age. They are forced out of babyhood when that is the shortest time of their life. They are also forced into potting training when they are not ready. Most children are in Day care centers and it is not necessary. I feel it does irreparable psychological damage to kids for many reasons.
Holly Merkiso says
I agree with you 100%!! Children need to be children, playful, social, having fun!
Laura Jones says
I majored in Early Childhood Education in the 60s. What I was taught then is relevant today. Let children play! I love what Norway does. I feel play is best. Art and Music are very important…let creativity flow. Children will read when ready. The best prerequisite for reading is children being read to at home and in school settings. I can go on and on.
Marcy Estelle says
I’m a preschool teacher of 3 and 4 year olds. Our four hour daily program gives the children time to make the social emotional connections through play. We spend 45 minutes of outside time playing that includes a very large sandbox, tricycles, chalk, slides and climbing, teacher interactions and lots of movement. Our center times are play based learning with lots of sensory play – play dough, colored rice, sand, water, colored pasta, bird seed, ice, tinker toyes, duplos with ramps and balls. Science table, manipulative table with star clips, or scale. Play cars and trucks with ramps and tunnels. Home living, blocks (wood, foam, cardboard). Art table with crayons, markers, glue sticks, cardboard, paper scraps, scissors, chalk, yarn, string, tissue paper. Large boxes made into space ship, train, and ship. I love the program I am involved with. We only use iPad for music and dancing. Children’s art on the walls. I love the twelve children in my care. We learn from each other.
Karen Levi says
Totally agree with you!
MS Winkler says
Reading and writing are one thing, but they don’t need to hear about sex and racism. Children are naturally accepting of each other.
Karen Dominik says
Amen!! I pray you get your message across to every educational system in the US. I applaud your stance on developmental appropriate education for preschoolers.
I’m a retired early childhood teacher. At the beginning of the year I spent weeks building my community of students in how we treat each other and the materials in the classroom. This develops responsibility, accountability, and respect. I also spent a lot of time on social/emotional skills that taught them life is about making choices. Nothing more satisfying than to see a child empowered to combat a “bully” type personality with words and action. I agree tremendously we as a society need to focus more on these life skills . The academics are woven in, but what a joy to see them flourish with transitioning, self/ help skills, and problem solving skills!!
Again, I wish you the best in getting this most important message to both parents snd other educators. We are the voices for these unknown children!!
You are so right!! I am a retired teacher with 15 years in kindergarten. I was heartsick by the time I changed grades. I have seen behavior problems in 5th grade that would not have happened if the children had learned how to get along in pre-K K.
Many of us in the field of mental have been saying this for years. Children’s “work” is through play. If course there is always the individual exceptional child that thrives on the current academic emphasis if preschool, but on the whole, the average child benefits more from the play and socialization of preschool. I think much of today’s academic push is to justify the huge tuitions charged so as to be able to show the parents what they got for their money. I prefer a happy child first.
I agree. I really believe this is a major reason we have so many kids who are depressed and anxious. We don’t allow them to be children. Even the curriculum doesn’t allow them to be children. By kindergarten they come home upset about how we’re killing our planet and we’re all going to drown from melting ice and snow, and we won’t have any water to drink and we shouldn’t drive cars. Should we wonder why they’re depressed and anxious and scared?? Let them be kids!! Leave this stuff for high school. Teach like they did before government got in it. The government has NEVER managed to have a positive outcome whenever it sticks its nose into things that have already been established by the people. Honestly if I still had children going into school I would take them out and have them tutored or get several families to hire a certified teacher to teach several grades in 1 room. That’s the way it used to be done and sometimes the old ways were better!
Mary Ignaczak says
Mother of four: all were reading long before pre school. They had learning toys . Kids TV publiclTV. In my opinion if you have not taught your children ABC’s colors &shapes before they are going to pre school . You have failed your parental job.
I am concerned with the school teaching sexual orientation in pre school? That causes confusion.