Monday, March 20, 2017

"Real" School

I attended a play-based kindergarten. It wasn't called a play-based kindergarten. It was just called kindergarten and what children did in kindergarten was play with blocks, paint on easels, and run around on the playground. Most kids didn't even attend kindergarten, it wasn't considered a proper year of schooling.

The following year, first grade, was the first year of "real" school. Most of us were approaching seven years old. We were not expected to know the alphabet, although I did, even as I was still unclear about the lower case letters, and we certainly weren't expected to have a tool belt full of "sight words" at our disposal. In fact, other than my own name, I'm pretty sure I didn't have any. Sitting at desks was a totally new concept and when we took our seats on that first day, we found small construction paper teddy bears, one for each of us, upon which Miss McCutcheon had written the word "Ted." I went home that day to tell mom that I'd learned to read. We were later to be divided into reading groups where we worked together to make out the text in our Dick and Jane books. We were all more or less starting from scratch.

When we received our report cards, I received straight A's, which made me proud, but what confused me was the second set of grades that came under the heading "personal skills" (or something like that), scored with numbers instead of letters. There were four of them. I don't recall the other three, but one of those skills upon which we were being evaluated was "self control." Self control? I remember thinking, how could anyone not get a high mark in that? And indeed, as I compared my grades with my classmates as one does, every kid in my social circle had managed one of the two highest marks.

In today's artificially rigorous schools, children who are still struggling with the alphabet on the first day of kindergarten are considered "behind." In fact, most are expecting the kids to already be working on sight words. Miss McCutcheon's "Ted" activity is the kind of thing teachers are now doing in preschool! At the same time we've accelerated our academic expectations for young children we have seen more and more of them struggle with "self-control" (e.g., struggling to self-regulate attention and hyperactivity). 

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research:

We found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent for an average child at age 11 and it virtually eliminated the probability that an average child at that age would have an 'abnormal,' or higher-than-normal rating for the inattentive-hyperactive behavior measure.

In other words, if today's kids had the sort of introduction to school that we had back in the 1960's they too would be scoring high marks in self-control. Instead, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, the prescription of psychostimulant medication to children, drugs like Ritalin, has boomed in recent decades. In some parts of the country as many as one in ten school-aged kids are on some sort of medication to help with self-control. Many of these kids then go on to a lifetime of mood altering medication. It's a nightmare as parents, teachers, and doctors are doping young children to make them "school ready" when simply giving the kids an additional year of the sort of unstructured play would do essentially the same thing, you know, without the drugs.

And this doesn't even factor in the majority of kids who are perhaps able to sit still, but continue to struggle with curriculum expectations that are beyond their developmental abilities, leading them to either conclude they aren't smart, to hate school, or both. 

It's around this time of year that parents tend to ask me whether or not their child is ready for kindergarten, especially those with kids whose birthdays fall right on the cusp. I always advise them to give their kid another year at our play-based school or one like it. Indeed, I would advise that for all children whatever their birthday, because the research is quite clear: children are best served by the sort of play-based education I received in kindergarten, even if we didn't call it that, until at least seven-years-old. 

It turns out that playing with blocks, painting on easels, and running around on the playground is "real" school after all.

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