Does research show us that young children have evolved to where they can learn faster? Are they smarter than they used to be? No! There is no research to indicate that a child’s brain has evolved over the years to where they need a learning environment that is more difficult from the past.
What has changed is our culture. The times are different, of course. Children now face a rapidly changing world in part due to technology. But that doesn’t mean they should be pushed to learn to read earlier, or to miss out on childhood because they are developmentally more advanced. Incorporating some computer skills, done in moderation, might be called for, but demanding more academically and socially from children is putting them on a fast-track to failure!
Upon reading about preschool and early childhood education today, we are often led to believe that child development has changed—that children are more capable than ever before to read early and to function differently than children from the past. It is often called “pushing down,” and we know that higher expectations of children mean they are being forced to learn at a faster rate.
A year ago, University of Virginia researchers wrote that kindergarten is the new first grade. However, Defending the Early Years has just come out with a report, Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose, by Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, which disputes the idea that young children should be pushed to learn to read so early. I also worried in a blog post last February, that forcing children to read before they were ready was actually going to turn them off to reading at an early age. HERE.
Many concerns surround the notion that preschoolers should arrive in kindergarten with reading skills under their belt, or that children in kindergarten need to accomplish various academic benchmarks in order to flourish.
Kindergarten especially has seen the end to many activities that used to be sacrosanct. Play kitchens, water tables, nap time, snacks, dress-up and building blocks are often scourged from the classroom in favor of ongoing assessment and desk work.
Most of us know how unscientific it was to remove recess, yet many schools still deny children critical breaks from the school routine. This truly is the equivalent of child abuse, whether those who enforce such regimens like to admit it.
And it is more and more common for standards to lead to assessment that casts students as needing help or not progressing fast enough when they are perfectly normal!
Many parents begin to worry that their children will fall behind, so they begin pushing as well, exposing them to literature and exercises that could be far over the child’s head and developmentally inappropriate.
A change in children’s books is a good example. Many now deal with adult themes—books about the Revolutionary War or the Civil Rights Movement. Do we want very young children working out those troubling concepts or, instead, learning to socially get along with their peers at recess?
In most ways, when it comes to learning, children haven’t really changed. They are quite similar to children born in 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010.
The well-respected Gesell Institute, since 1950, has done observational studies of young children through founders Dr. Frances Ilg and Dr. Louise Bates Ames. The Gesell Developmental Schedule was first published in 1925 by Dr. Arnold Gesell who worked at Yale. They have published numerous books that are easily attainable and understandable for parents and educators to learn developmentally appropriate behavior from preschool and into later stages of development. I personally found the Gesell books a useful resource when my own child was young.
In 2010, the Gesell Institute conducted a study of young children to find if they have indeed changed from earlier years. They had previously collected data on children ages 5-10. Their study of a national sample of 1,200 children, 3-6 years old, showed that they performed tasks similarly to children from earlier years!
Here are additional observations as described at the Gesell LEAD Press Conference: Study Results in New Haven Connecticut in 2010:
- Problems have become “apparent” in schools with push down learning, especially in kindergarten.
- According to recent studies, the current kind of teaching does not improve test scores.
- Children feel like failures as early as preschool and preschoolers are even being expelled from school.
- Social and problem-solving skills important for the job market, like persistence, creativity, cooperation, and communication, are not fully developed.
Of course there will always be children who work beyond the developmental skills of their age group and those children should receive enrichment, just like some students might need some help in reaching developmentally appropriate objectives. But pushing all children to reach the same standards is not in their best interest. Making learning enjoyable, or permitting children to work things out in play is what works.
Children also need nurturing when it comes to behavior.
It all should be done without pressure and without the tremendous testing and data collection that has been justified by the notion that children are more advanced than their earlier counterparts. They’re not.
So bring back play and dress-up and all those wonderful developmentally appropriate ways young children really work things out in their lives. And bring it back for ALL children. This is the kind of learning that matters. The children will thank you.
Kelleher, Maureen. “Gesell Institute Study Finds Stability in Cognitive Milestones.” Education Week. Oct. 22, 2010.
Pappano, Laura. “Kids Haven’t Changed; Kindergarten Has.” Harvard Education Newsletter. Available on Susan Ohanian’s Website. HERE.
Gesell Developmental Schedules. Wikipedia.