May 25, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

[Recently two articles appeared in The New York Times (an Op Ed by David Kohn May 16, 2015, and a news article by Motoko Rich, June 10, 2015) challenging the practice of premature academic instruction in Nursery and Kindergarten. This article is adapted from their research.]

In some states, kindergarten is mandatory, but not in New Jersey. However, the trend is to push children into formal instruction as young as three. Nomenclature may be different—Pre-K, Pre 1A, Nursery—but the pressure starts earlier and earlier. Years ago, children in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing: building with blocks, drawing or creating imaginary worlds, in their own heads or with classmates. Now we see these activities being abandoned for the teacher-led, didactic instruction typically used in higher grades. In some schools, five-year-olds are doing what first or even second graders once did, and former kindergarten staples like dramatic play areas, easels, and water or sand tables have vanished from some classrooms, while worksheets and textbooks have appeared.

It is considered laudable for children to be reading by the time they finish kindergarten or even earlier. The rationale is the earlier we start the less likely will kids risk falling behind in reading and math. We may joke about the college application process starting in Nursery but it is no laughing matter.

A growing group of scientists, education researchers, and educators say there is little evidence that this approach improves long-term achievement; in fact, it may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even souring kids’ desire to learn.

The stakes in this debate are considerable. As the skeptics of teacher-led early learning see it, that kind of education will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than innovators. Which kind of student do we want to produce in the 21st century?

No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have contributed to more testing and more teacher-directed instruction as have the Common Core State Standards, currently in 43 states and the District of Columbia. These well-intentioned initiatives are misguided. Several countries, including Finland and Estonia, don’t start compulsory education until the age of 7. In the most recent comparison of national educational levels, the Program for International Student Assessment, both countries ranked significantly higher than the United States on math, science and reading.

It’s unlikely that starting school at seven would work here: too many young kids would probably end up watching hours of TV a day, or playing with their electronic games, not activities that promotes future educational achievement. But the complexities of the task in this country don’t erase a fundamental fact that overly structured classrooms do not benefit many young children. The issue of both parents working and the need for child care is a cognate concern which factors into this equation.

Studies have shown that those who started at age five had lower reading comprehension than those who began learning later. Other research has found that early didactic instruction might actually worsen academic performance. Children’s progress may have been slowed by overly academic preschool experiences that introduced formalized learning experiences too early for most children’s developmental status. Play is essential to a child’s development. They need to learn to persevere, to control attention, to share, to control emotions. Kids learn these things through playing.

Concerned that kindergarten has become overly academic in recent years, a suburban school district south of Baltimore is introducing a new curriculum in the fall for five-year-olds. Chief among its features is a most old-fashioned concept: play. States like Vermont, Minnesota and Washington are once again embracing play as a bedrock of kindergarten. Schools are training teachers on the importance of so-called purposeful play—when teachers subtly guide children to learning goals through games, art and general fun. Many schools in recent years have curtailed physical and art education in favor of longer blocks for reading and math instruction to help improve test scores. The hard work even begins in kindergarten.

The real experts, though, never really supported the elimination of playtime. Using play to develop academic knowledge—as well as social skills—in young children is the backbone of alternative educational philosophies like those of Maria Montessori or Reggio Emilia. And many veteran kindergarten teachers, as well as most academic researchers, say they have long known that children learn best when they are allowed ample time to go shopping at a pretend grocery store or figure out how to build bridges with wooden blocks. Even the Common Core standards state that play is a “valuable activity.”

There was for a short time a Jewish Montessori school in Bergen County which used brilliantly created manipulatives to teach math and science during play time while at the same time developing fine motor skills. Keep in mind that Maria Montessori was a math teacher. At one of the JES teacher conferences we highlighted the Reggio Emilia approach. These alternative educational philosophies should be given more consideration by our schools.

M. Manuela Fonseca, the early-education coordinator for Vermont, said her state was trying to emphasize the learning value of play in its new guidelines. “Before we had the water table because it was fun and kids liked it,” she said. “Now we have the water table so kids can explore how water moves and actually explore scientific ideas.”

Over the past 20 years, scientists have come to understand much more about brain function and how children learn. Most kids younger than 7 or 8 are better suited for active exploration than didactic explanation. The trouble with over-structuring is that it discourages exploration. On the other hand, teachers can be given tips on how to be more creative in academic lessons like tossing a ball printed with different numbers to teach math. Rigor does not necessarily negate fun and play.

Kids are being been pushed and pushed and pushed to be reading, sitting and listening. Four- and five-year-olds need to play and color. They need to go out and sing songs. Reading, in particular, can’t be rushed. It has been around for only about 6,000 years, so the ability to transform marks on paper into complex meaning is not pre-wired into the brain. The early education that kids get should truly help their development. We hope that those who make education policy will start paying attention to the science of learning.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator. He was a day school principal and director of two central agencies for Jewish education, including our own community’s Jewish Educational Services. He is the founder of the Sinai School, and is currently a consultant to day schools, and serves as Executive Secretary of The Alisa Flatow Memorial Scholarship Fund. He can be reached at [email protected].

By Wallace Greene

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