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!