Let Them Play – Update

Long time readers of this blog know that I’m not a big fan of pushing academic goals and pursuits on very young children. I’ve always believed that the weight of evidence was already so significant that it couldn’t be ignored.

Here are a number of my previous blog posts around this topic;

Let Them Play
Younger Children and Play
Sad State of American Kindergarten
Long Life Changes Everything

It’s my firm belief that forcing our youngest children on to a heavy diet of academic learning is like playing a form of Russian roulette with their futures. There might be a few who excel, some who do OK – but there will be too many losers in this game and it cannot be acceptable.

Neurology is teaching us more and more about the developing brain. In order to be able to learn a new skill requires that the child must have a neural network that is ‘ready’ for that learning. If you have some children in a room who are reading and some who are not, this is no measure of long term reading potential, but merely a matter of the readiness of their neural networks. However, at both the conscious and unconscious level the child doesn’t know this. Instead, they are put in to a situation where they seem to be a failure, a cause of disappointment to the adults who matter most in their lives. To me, this is a recipe for children with a fixed mindset and a set of beliefs that they are not good at school learning, never will be and are destined to underachieve. Then, they will go through their entire schooling producing the kinds of results they expect of themselves. In short – we are setting up too many children for failure and under-achievement.

If anybody still had doubts on these issues, here’s a recent article from the US that shares some fascinating recent research from Denmark. It carries strong evidence of mental health benefits of delaying the start of school (by which i take it to mean serious, school-type learning, curriculum etc.) which in turn are exactly the kinds of factors that contribute to higher and better academic achievements. The article brought to mind other research that I read recently that said that whilst many children introduced to academic learning early showed some academic benefits in terms of performance these were all wiped out by the end of Class 4 and after that these students slid further and further behind their peers.

Washington Post – Delaying kindergarten until age 7 offers key benefits to kids — study

Here, I want to stress. I believe very firmly that high quality, calibrated pre-school programmes for children up to age 5-6 have a beneficial impact on their later learning, school readiness and academic achievements. However, we must see that the key is that these programmes should focus very much on building pre-school skills, such as prosocial behaviour ability rather than seeking to get an early ‘head start’ on the academic learning that comes later. This also doesn’t mean holding any child back from doing things for which their neural network is ready. However, the fact that they’re ready early doesn’t make them heroes, child prodigies or even praise-worthy. it just is.

We don’t hand out awards for being an early walker, and we don’t put late walkers in remediation – and they all walk!

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Mark,

    Its been a pleasure to read your perspectives right from TSRS days, including this piece that you wrote.

    Now how does someone go explain this to dogmatic Indian school system.. further mired with heirarchial social norms.. with teacher mindset by and large fixated in exams and marks as the goal and not just the end result rather than learning as the goal and marks as the end result.

    Almost every progressive minded person in the system would Conceptually clear on this.. but habitually insecure in letting them just play and perform untill when they’re ready..

    The incentives need to be lined up in most systems (in both developed and developing world) for this change to happen.

    Thanks, Neeraj +91.95609.33009 / +1.408.773.0635

    • I have concluded that it doesn’t matter which country you look at – if you leave things to the system and wait for the system to take on board new knowledge in education then you’ll wait for ever.

      What’s needed is enough courageous and committed educators – teachers and school heads willing to invest the time to educate parents that there is a gap between what they think they want and what they and their children need.

      Eventually, when enough people get it, there will be a tipping point.

      Thanks for following and sharing your thoughts.

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