Too much, too soon?

CLASSROOM DILEMMA

When my children were little, they did not attend kindergarten, they attended ‘play school’, where their mornings were spent cutting, pasting, playing ‘house’, dressing up, working with clay and riding about on bikes and scooters.

They sang and chanted rhymes and enjoyed being with their friends. There were games and dances for healthy activity and an awareness of the natural world. These days, play schools do not seem to exist and in their place are kindergartens, which promise to prepare your children for the cut throat world of education!

Is this a good idea?

Kindergartens are forcing very young children to do what is in fact the first standard curriculum! Michael Thompson, an eminent psychologist and author, attributed the rise in childhood obesity, attention-deficit hyper-activity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and depression to the fact that young children are missing out on free undirected play and doing too much too soon.

Child development experts say that children in academic kindergartens often learn math and reading at the expense of their social skills. Children from play-based programmes can catch up easily academically while the children from academic backgrounds may never catch up socially.  This can be a real blow to a child’s self esteem.

Supporters of the academic pre-schools (kindergartens) disagree and say that children are like sponges; the more information we give them the more they take in. Some kindergartens claim to be developmentally appropriate and sound like great fun but maybe parents need to take time to observe what goes on in the classroom before they sign their child up. 

Every child is different, some can handle academic work better than others, but play is an important part of every child’s development, including the academically able. What are the warning signs that indicate that a kindergarten may not be teaching young children the best way to learn, but is putting too much pressure on the child?

*Find out if the kindergarten proudly sends home a complete book of worksheets done by the child!  We live in a paper world of worksheets.  It’s great to have paper to take home occasionally but think, is that all they get? 

*Young children learn best through hands-on activities that involve multiple senses. If your child brings home a great many worksheets it may be a sign that there is too much pencil and paper work going on in school. A worksheet where your little child has written the letter ‘A’ on dotted lines ten times, might make you proud as a parent, but it shouldn't; ask yourself, is that the best approach to learning?  Your child may well be frustrated by writing, if his fine motor control skills are not developed and therefore, he is not ready for writing on the small lines provided.

What are fine motor control skills?

Children develop in stages, but at different levels. One of the most important developments is the ability to manipulate the tools of education; drawing and writing implements. Some children can be very advanced at this, others not so. Children must be allowed to develop their fine motor control skills at their own pace.  If they are pressurised into writing before they are ready to exercise their skills, it could affect their ability to write or draw properly for the rest of their life.

How can we teach the child to write if we abandon paper activities? 

A more appropriate activity may be to let children write, with their finger, in a tray of sand or salt, shaving cream or finger paint. The end product might not be as accurate as the pencil written ‘A’ but this multi-sensory activity allows the child the opportunity to practice writing without the pressure of making mistakes. This way the child learns how to form letters rather than focusing on connecting dots, or making sure the letters fit inside the lines.

Too much peace and quiet

Pre-school is a time for learning to cooperate and interact with others and develop attention spans. Some teachers in kindergartens unintentionally place Standard One (Primary School) level expectations on pre-school children to sit still and be quiet. Sitting and listening to a story, having calendar time and checking the weather are all part of what is commonly called ‘circle time’ in pre-school. These 15-20 minutes of sitting down is best if it includes some singing or movement activities to keep the children engaged.  Asking a child at kindergarten level to sit longer than 20 or 30 minutes is an unrealistic expectation.

Little children learn through hands-on activities. They learn numbers, letters and other basics of the pre-school curriculum through active free play (this includes noisy play) rather than sitting at tables listening to teacher talk. Children need time to complete their play — by this I mean unstructured play.

Play equals learning

Through play children develop skills such as collaboration, critical thinking and confidence.  We have for too long separated play and learning. Pre-school is important and how we do it is even more important. Pushing children to perform at a level they aren’t old enough to handle increases failure rates, behaviour problems and takes away from an important aspect of school, the importance of play.  Play at this age, is the best way to learn social skills and self-control — which might result in the children deciding that they like going to school!

What to look for in a kindergarten

Developmentally appropriate kindergarten classrooms encourage the growth of the child’s self esteem, their independence and their individual strengths. This type of Kindergarten enables a child to develop control of their behaviour through guidance and the support of caring adults, both trained teachers and untrained assistants.  
From what has been said already, it can be seen that kindergarten teachers need special qualities to teach at this level.

They must have a strong background in early childhood education and child development. There must be a sufficient ratio of trained specialists to children in the school. Having a number of untrained assistants is alright for certain activities, but does not count when it comes to teaching. Here are some signs to look for in a good kindergarten.

* Children are playing and working with materials or with other children.
*Children are not wandering around without focus or forced to sit quietly for long periods of time.
*Children have access to various activities throughout the day, such as block building, pretend play, picture books, paints and other art materials.
* Table toys, such as Lego, pegboards, threading beds and puzzles should be available.
* Children are not all doing the same things at the same time.
*Teachers work with individual children, small groups, and the whole group at different times during the day. They do not spend time only with the entire group.
* The classroom is decorated with children’s original artwork, their own writing (not overwriting, but their own efforts), with invented spelling, and dictated stories.
* Children learn numbers and the alphabet in the context of their everyday experiences.  
*Children work on projects and have long periods of time (at least one hour) to play and explore.
*Filling out worksheets should not be their primary activity.
* Children have an opportunity to play outside every day, weather permitting.   
* Teachers read books to children throughout the day, not just at group story time.
*The curriculum is adapted for those who are ahead as well as those who need additional help.  
*Parents feel safe sending their child to the kindergarten. Children are happy; they are not crying or regularly sick.

Too much too soon!

If we push too hard we destroy the natural development which is within the child. Playing in an unstructured way enables the child to develop at his or her own pace. Too much, too soon, is the way to ensure the child dislikes learning from a very early age. It is the foundation of phobic behaviour with regards to education.

Throughout this article the term ‘pre-school’ has been used. This means ‘before school’ and that is what kindergarten should be, a place where children can learn, mainly through play, to develop their abilities in preparation for regular school.

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