The Harm We Can Do in Early Years Education

A few years ago, I read a pretty alarming study that had come from Germany. A situation arose there, in a particularl area, where early years approaches to education were being changed from quite an academic’ approach to a much more play-based approach. However, as this process was going along there were political changes and the process stopped. it stayed stopped for some time whilst people figured out where to go next.

This created a unique situation – otherwise consistent for demographics and other background, about half the local children were experiencing a play approach in early years, the other half a much more academically oriented approach. Researchers latched on to the opportunity this represented and started a longitudinal study that tracked these children right through in to their adult years. Incidentally, after those differing early years experiences they were randomly educated through the same experiences in later years.

So, what did they find out?

a) Firstly, the children experiencing the more academic early years approach experiences academic benefits over their peers UNTIL CLASS 4. After that, the positions were reversed and there was an ever-widening gap with the children who had the play-based experiences outperforming their peers.

b) Maybe most alarming, in adult life, the children with the more academically oriented early years showed higher levels of alcohol and substance abuse, trouble with criminality, involvement in domestic abuse, psychological illness, obesity and poor health.

These are really quite alarming outcomes, especially as the research really didn’t flag up any long term positive benefits from the more academic approach to early years learning. Even more alarming when we see the pressures that come to bear throughout the world to make early years education more content driven, more teaching-centric and more focused on ‘getting an early start’ on the ‘stuff’ of school learning.

If all that wasn’t enough, here’s some further, new research from Stanford University, working with colleagues in Denmark about the difference between early and late starts for kindergarten. It showed those starting earlier had much higher levels of inattention and hyperactivity much later in their schooling. These are known factors that can be major negatives for academic outcome achievements

Quartz – Stanford Researchers Show We’re Sending Many Children To School Way Too Early

I don’t believe for a minute that we’re going to be changing the ages at which children start school. Therefore, it becomes critically important that we work to ensure that the experience they have is a low pressure, high-play one. We also need to invest considerable energy to educate parents, to share knowledge and expertise with them, so that they understand why the lay logic of a hasty start and early academic pressure are dangerous and counter-productive for their children.


Let Them Play

A couple of days ago, my son and I were having a conversation, remembering the 6 or so years when we lived in a gated, secure environment in Gurgaon, India which gave the freedom to let him go out to play with friends and essentially ‘disappear’ for hours. As he’s got older he’s come to realise how valuable that time was and how much it’s missed by children living in the sorts of situations we have here in Dubai – high-rise living with no scope to just let the children go off to play freely and do their own thing.

When I was a boy there was even more freedom. Whether it was Cyprus where at the age of 11 i could head off alone to the sailing club, rig up ‘my boat’ and go sailing for the afternoon – all on my own, or if there was a breeze up I might take someone else to crew for me. Or, in a small village in England where in the school holidays I’d only be seen at home for meals. The rest of the time, I’d be off with friends over an area with a radius of a couple of miles!

I think this Washington Post article does well to touch upon many of the important growth opportunities children are missing out on as a result of the ‘changed world’;

Washington Post – Adults Must Stop Trying to Control How Children Play

In school, occasionally, I shudder a bit when teachers use phrases like ‘free play’, because what they are describing is rarely truly free. Perhaps the most extreme example was when I heard two teachers talking about ‘assessment based on free play’.

The question that arises in my mind has no simple answer – if the world around us is no longer safe enough to let our children play freely in it, then how will we provide viable alternatives with the requisite level of freedom and insulated from the interference of even well-meaning adults. This one needs some thought!

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