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.