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Preschool and Pre-K: Are We Sending Our Children to 'School' Too Soon?

I go into preschools and see children playing with puzzles on a screen instead of playing with real puzzles. They read words from a screen instead of holding real books. There will be plenty of time for technology. There is very little time for childhood.
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At a time in which many people feel our national government should be finding ways to be less involved in education and finding ways to cut spending, we see the opposite unfolding. Pre-K may be expanded and our national debt will drastically increase. It is urgent that we analyze what is happening to our young children. Reports from the Department of Health and Human Services reveal that any benefits of Head Start have disappeared by third grade, and their study in 2010 showed vanishing benefits by first grade. Pre-K programs vary from state to state and even within a state. More research needs to be done, especially in looking at long-term value.

Over the past twenty years or so, parents have felt more and more pressure to "prepare" their children for school. What generally happens when the nation decides to "prepare" someone to do something, is that the nation wants to give them the very same lessons they will later see. The nation wants to teach young children how to write with a pencil, color, cut, paste, learn how to count, learn shapes, learn phonics, reading skills... how to sit in desks or at tables to work, how to line up and change classes for different subjects. This is not preparation! This is wasting time and depriving them of the appropriate experiences they could be having.

I go into preschools and see 2-year-olds practicing flash cards about shapes. Why would these children need to recognize ovals and diamonds? I see 3-year-olds being forced to stand against the wall to recite what they are being made to memorize. They are punished for not standing still for the thirty minutes required. I see 4-year-olds being made to write their names on lined paper. Many are unable to hold the pencil correctly. They struggle, but are forced to keep working... even if it is all counterproductive. They are forced to take on academic tasks, but have had few experiences to develop conceptual understandings. They are handed technology devices to keep them busy and have fun. They play with puzzles on a screen instead of playing with real puzzles. They read words from a screen instead of holding real books. There will be plenty of time for technology. There is very little time for childhood.

Why did we ever feel we had to push the kindergarten curriculum down one or two or three years? If anything, we need to give children more time to grow and develop physically, socially, emotionally and mentally in natural ways. As a kindergarten teacher, I realized that many of the problems I saw were results of children being made to perform academic tasks too early. Their minds and bodies were not ready. Teaching skills too early can have detrimental effects because the child's brain is not developmentally ready to process these abstractions. When we work in harmony with brain growth, we are willing to give time and experiences the priority.

What has happened to childhood? The best preparation for kindergarten is a happy and fulfilling childhood. Childhood should be filled with days of playing, imagining, enjoying the company of loved ones who provide security and enjoying the natural world... sunshine, fresh air, rainbows, plants, animals, rocks, sand... and all other abundant resources. We know that one of the best measures of success in education is being in a loving home with parents. Let's start treasuring and encouraging this way of life as preparation for school. In our Head Start and Pre-K programs, let's simulate a secure, loving home environment where children can partake of the tremendous benefits. Let's rename these programs "Living a Happy Childhood."

School settings should balance with home and society. At home, children have less time outdoors, less time for conversation, less time for natural play and activities of imagination. School environments should help balance those needs. We are not seeing the benefits of sending children to school so early because many of the practices are inappropriate. Our policy-makers are harming our children by taking their childhood away and filling it with rigid lessons in institutional settings. The nation still suffers from wanting to teach too much, too early. The nation suffers from seeing a 2-year-old manipulate a technology device and thinking that is brilliant. What they do not realize is that the brain is being programmed in a way that, in my opinion, may later prove to be detrimental.

I included this quote in Education As It Could Be. It is from one of my favorite books, The Education of Man by Friedrich Froebel (1887). He lived in Germany and helped lay the foundation for cherishing childhood. He believed in the inborn qualities of children that can be brought to light by teachers who do not force an agenda on young children, but enjoy the marvelous journey by nourishing the natural stages of childhood:

We grant space and time to young plants and animals because we know that, in accordance with the laws that live within them, they will develop properly and grow well... arbitrary interference with their growth is avoided, because it is known that the opposite practice would disturb their pure unfolding and sound developments; but the young human being is looked upon as a piece of wax, a lump of clay, which man can mold into what he pleases... why does thou close thy mind to the silent teaching of nature?