The Damage Being Done by the Focus on Early Academic Instruction
For all of you still having to “fight” for more active play/yoga/mindfulness/nature time with early learners, research funded by the Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years Foundation confirms that “young children learn best through meaningful, play experiences.” Unfortunately, though most early childhood educators would recommend whole child engaging activities, a la programs like the Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum, they are being forced to abide by new requirements that focus on academics. Current statistics show that long-term damage is being done by this shift to developmentally inappropriate practices for young kids. The less play-based experiences preschool – kindergarten children engage in, the more sensory issues they have.
Preschool years are not only optimal for children to learn through play, but also a critical developmental period. If children are not given enough natural movement and play experiences, they start their academic careers with a disadvantage. They are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, utilize poor problem-solving methods, and demonstrate difficulties with social interactions. We are consistently seeing sensory, motor, and cognitive issues pop up more and more in later childhood, partly because of inadequate opportunities to move and play at an early age.
Peter Gray, PhD, research professor at Boston College, and author of Free to Learn (Basic Books, 2013) offers a synopsis of the research of the negative effects of academic preschools and kindergartens in his article in Psychology Today: Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm. The biological fact is that children are born with instinctive drives to educate themselves through play and exploration. When we interfere or try to impose rather than support those innate impulses, we stop the natural learning process and damage the child’s confidence, ease, joy, and creative, critical thinking. What makes this so frustrating and infuriating is that this research has been around for decades!
In a well-controlled experiment, begun by David Weikart and his colleagues in 1967, sixty eight high-poverty children living in Ypsilanti, Michigan, were assigned to one of three types of nursery schools: Traditional (play-based), High/Scope (which was like the traditional but involved more adult guidance), and Direct Instruction (where the focus was on teaching reading, writing, and math, using worksheets and tests). The initial results of this experiment were similar to those of other such studies. Those in the direct-instruction group showed early academic gains, which soon vanished. This study, however, also included follow-up research when the participants were 15 years old and again when they were 23 years old. At these ages there were no significant differences among the groups in academic achievement, but large, significant differences in social and emotional characteristics.
Thankfully, in Germany, they paid attention to the research and adapted their early learning programs accordingly:
A study with similar outcomes was done in Germany where play-based kindergartens were being transformed into early learning centers in the 1970s. The study compared 50 kindergarten classes using each of the two approaches. The children were followed through grade four, and those from the play-based programs excelled over the others on all 17 measures, including being more advanced in reading and mathematics and being better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. As a result the German kindergartens again became play based.
With ample proof that an academic focus in early learning is detrimental, it’s mind boggling how direct instruction for math and reading continues to proliferate?! Defending the Early Years, and Alliance for Childhood ask the same question in their article: Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain, Much to Lose. In it, they reveal that, on the committees that wrote and reviewed the new Common Core School Standards (CCSS), there is not one K-3rd grade teacher or an early childhood professional. Nor is there any actual evidence that the standards are based on research.
I can’t explain this total disregard for valid research but I do know it means we need to continue to push back – harder. If you, as parent, teacher, therapist, need support for fighting this battle, reach out to us and feel free to use any resources from our website!
To summarize, here’s what the EXPERTS say and encourage you to be doing:
Children learn best when they are engaged in activities geared to their developmental levels, prior experiences, and current needs. As they construct their ideas through play and hands-on activities that make sense to them, children’s knowledge builds in a gradual progression that is solid and unshakable. They build a foundation of meaning that provides the basis for understanding concepts in language, literacy, math, science and the arts. In active learning, their capacities for language development, social and emotional awareness, problem solving, self-regulation, creativity, and original thinking develop, transforming them into effective learners.
What if your new mantra was: I have plenty of time?
Say it to yourself a few times …. let it sink in to your body and mind as fact. Let yourself feel that you have plenty of time.
Notice your internal response. Did you soften, widen, slow down, take a deep breath? Did the outside world seem to slow down, too?
Notice you shifted your state with a shift in your thinking.
When TIME is your friend, and you appreciate her, she’s spacious and accommodating. When TIME is not your friend, and you belittle her, she is constricting and stress producing. TIME is a creation of your perception. How you hold her is how she appears in your world.
Last year, in order to shift the level of stress I felt in my life, my new year’s resolution was to align with specific qualities I wanted to feel – EASE being at the top of the list. In the process of cultivating ease, I realize now that I also re-created my experience of TIME. I could not feel ease and rush, or worry. I had to slow down and reorganize. And what a revelation… I learned that being busy all the time does not increase productivity; it is instead a recipe for misery by taking the enjoyment out of everything.
If you feel caught in some version of “rat race”, you are stuck in a round room. When you think, speak, and act as though there’s not enough time, your experience will reinforce that concept and continue to generate debilitating stress in a race of your own creation that you can never win.
Meditation, mindfulness practices, and yoga are wonderful ways to re-invent your concept of and relationship to TIME. Build in time for a practice or a class that resonates with you and stick to it. As with any practice, it is the cumulative effect of regularity over time that is essential for transformation.
Even if you spent just 20 minutes a day, 10 in the am and 10 in the pm, repeating the mantra: I have plenty of time, you would start to embody a slower inner speed, and a shift in consciousness that translates to less stress and more enjoyment. With plenty of TIME, you have the space to more deeply experience and appreciate the moments that make up your life.
The ability to slow down is available to everyone. It can feel uncomfortable at first because we are not mirroring the outside world but if we are willing to move through the discomfort, it feels more natural overtime until it actually begins to feel pleasurable to sit with our feelings. We become aware of the many different parts of a feeling we label with only one word. For example, we say I feel stress but when we slow down, we see stress is a representation of feeling tired, bored, anxious, irritated, inadequate and under-appreciated all at once. This deepening changes our relationship with time. Everything eventually slows down to a manageable pace when we allow our relationship with this moment to matter.
A recent article in Developmental Psychology and Committee for Children reports that children with higher levels of self-regulation achieve higher scores in reading, vocabulary and math. As any therapist, teacher or parent, who has knowledge of sensory integration issues, knows – deficits in self- regulation affect everything else – behaviors, social skills and motor responses. With pre-kindergarten and kindergarten curriculum changing its focus to reading, writing and math skills, young children who need time to play, explore and practice self-regulation during these early formative years are falling behind with “behavior problems”. This study provides significant evidence that they are actually a symptom of a developmentally inappropriate focus on academics.
- In early childhood, the primary developmental task is to fully inhabit one’s body and senses. It is through movement and playful sensory exploration that children grow their brains and healthy sense of self. Movement builds brain cells and grows the optimal functioning of every system in the body. As a child’s muscles and coordination grow, so does the density of the brain and its executive function, which is the source of higher level thinking and self-awareness.
As a teacher and parent who has spent years teaching children self-regulation, I can tell you that it happens in the body. Intentional movement, such as yoga, has such profound effects on children’s ability to focus, calm themselves, and filter sensory information. Yoga has become increasingly popular because it is a perfect playground for active fun that develops motor skills and fitness along with social-emotional awareness and self-regulation tools. As educators, we know from experience, that when children feel in control of their own bodies and can navigate their own stress and frustration from the inside out in a healthy way, they are learning able because they can sustain their own emotional stability through self-regulation.
- Researchers in ECE, Megan McClelland, Ph.D., Associate Professor Human Development and Family Sciences, and her student, ShaunaTominey, have designed games to help children practice paying attention, following directions, remembering rules, and demonstrating self-control. Games and movement practices, combined with appropriate mirroring, are what children need to develop self-awareness, emotional intelligence and self-control.
The lack of playful SEL curriculum activities is what inspired me to produce the Move with Me ™ resources that teach health and self-regulation skills to pre-K & K. Our video classes are designed to involve the whole child in social-emotional learning through stories and pretend play. In the process of acting out a narrative through movement, children have the fun of “being” everything in the story – the lion, the rocket, the tree. So, while they are having fun building fitness, focus, stamina and coordination, they are also improving early literacy and learning social-emotional skills, which are embedded into the action and called Adventure Skills. These simple exercises, with cool names such as Monkey Wisdom and Ocean Breath, empower kids to calm, center and redirect themselves when upset, angry, frustrated, sad, scared or over-whelmed. They give both care-giver and child a common vocabulary and a set of tools for SEL that can transform meltdowns into mindfulness and acting out to self-control.
According to CA Head Start: Higher order thinking skills are crucial to a child’s success in school, and they are a challenge to support in the preschool classroom.
Why? Because brain executive function mode requires physical well-being, emotional safety and embodied engagement. In other words, to use the higher levels of the brain, we must first meet basic survival needs, and feel emotional safety. When stress affects us negatively, we lose access to executive function and the capability to think clearly. We revert back to the Reptilian (survival) Brain, where instinct rules the day. And that is when Ronnie (age 5), who is tired because he went to bed late, ate a donut for breakfast, and now wants to play with his truck, has a complete melt down when it’s time for circle.
The key to “better” behavior at home and optimal learning at preschool is physical well-being, emotional safety and embodied engagement. Bottom-line: physical fitness and self-regulation are key factors for school success. According to the Head Start Health Standards, every child should have 90-120 minutes of supervised active play daily. Motor skill instruction and fun, physical challenges build mastery, which supports fine motor skill and cognitive development. The growth of endurance, speed, and power in our muscles is literally reflected in the weight and density of our brain. Harvard psychiatrist and researcher, Dr. John Ratey, states eloquently, “Exercise is miracle grow for the brain.” A growth factor called Brain Derived Nuerotrophic Growth factor (BDNF) is released in abundance when we exercise. Aas children’s fitness and coordination grow, so does their executive function / higher order thinking.
The ability to self-regulate is also needed for executive function. Without being able to focus, control impulses and manage everyday stresses and emotions, children are disruptive, unhappy, inattentive, emotionally unstable and fall behind academically. They are stuck in the survival, reptilian brain.
The good news is that you can easily support and sustain higher order thinking / executive function and lay a foundation for lifetime well-being simultaneously. Simply schedule more supervised active play and actively teach self-regulation skills. With more fun exercise, children feel and manage themselves better. With use of self-regulation skills, supported by you, they can start to monitor, manage and even change their own emotional state as needed.
Movement and mindfulness resources for home or school:
Physical play and movement are essential for growing minds and bodies. When you nurture the body, physically, you nurture the mind, both cognitively and emotionally. Providing your students with opportunities for daily active, creative play is the best way to lay a foundation for emotional health and academic fitness.
Unfortunately, children’s level of physical activity has steadily declined over the past 40 years and the percentage of overweight children has tripled since the 1980’s. The facts, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the late 1970s, about 5% of children between 2 and 5 years old were overweight; in recent years that figure has climbed to 20%. The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 30% in 2011. Studies indicate that when patterns of little physical activity are established early in childhood, the amount of physical activity continues to decline into adolescence and adulthood, leading to increased health problems, obesity, and increased risk of cognitive disorders.
The physical activity patterns of childhood set up the physical patterns of adulthood, for better or for worse. The sooner this lack of physical activity is addressed; the better off the child’s overall health will be in the short and long term.
Research in the field of neuroscience shows that play and exercise not only keep us fit and at a healthy weight, they also boost our cognitive abilities. Dr. John J. Ratey, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, writes: “Exercise is miracle grow for the brain.” Why? because both aerobic and intentional exercise elevate the level of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is essential for the growth of brain cells. Every time kids move quickly or slowly, they fuel their brains with BDNF and other positive chemical messengers that enhance coordination of body and mind, learning, and memory.
Bottom-line, children need active play to be fit physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally:
• Play is the language of children and nature’s biological plan for learning
• Play fuels the production of the neurotransmitters essential for growth and development
• Play is multi-sensory and engages the whole child to show up
• Play inspires creative thinking
• Play puts children in a present, focused, receptive, integrated state
• Regular active play and exercise enhances academic achievement, fitness and behavior
It’s grey, it’s cold, everyone’s been sick and you’re totally uninspired. We all know the feeling. But don’t let winter gloom and cabin fever turn you into a couch potato. Plan some FUN & EXERCISE!
Active playtime is just as important as some extra doses of vitamins C and D to keep your spirits lifted and your immune system strong during the winter and flu season. Why? Because play is the optimum state for both health and learning. Playing and exercising literally shift your mind-body state and your chemistry – into the zone of coherence, joy, creativity and bonding.
Recent studies have shown that during moderate exercise, immune cells circulate through the body more quickly and are better able to kill bacteria and viruses. According to professor David Nieman, Dr. PH., of Appalachian State University, when moderate exercise is repeated on a near-daily basis there is a cumulative effect that leads to a long-term immune response. His research showed that those who exercise daily have half as many sick days due to colds or sore throats as those who don’t exercise.
See more at: http://www.acefitness.org/acefit/fitness-fact-article/2613/can-exercise-reduce-your-risk-of-catching-a/#sthash.ZtDpfp5F.dpuf
Bottom-line, active play for kids is more than just FUN, it also boosts well-being, strengthens immune system and enhances:
- creative problem solving and conflict resolution
- language skills and communication
- memory and learning
- focus, attention and sustained concentration
- impulse control and emotional intelligence
- balance, coordination and confidence
- maintaining healthy body weight and sense of well-being
- ability to manage stress and reduce anxiety
Though it’s easy to just let the family all go to their respective corners and technology, especially when it’s bleak outside, don’t! Make sure you plan and enjoy some playtime with your child or children every day. You’ll all feel closer, happier, healthier.
Here are some ideas:
- Plant an herb garden or window sill pots
- Explore a new trail or park
- Visit the aquarium, planetarium, zoo or children’s museum
- Create an indoor obstacle course
- Play Twister or Yogi Benders
- Act out your favorite book as a movement story
- Play a board or card game
- Do a Move with Me or other exercise video
- Cook or bake something special and surprise a friend