Thursday, September 01, 2011

Hey, It's Not A Race

As it approached time for my daughter to move on from her play-based cooperative preschool to kindergarten, I was not impressed by our local public school (one of the kindergarten teachers told me point-blank that he would never send his child there due to severe problems with the administration), which sent me on a citywide investigation that took me to visit some 40 private school open houses searching for the proverbial best fit.

I developed a methodology after awhile which involved finding parents of current students to chat up, under the theory that if I could find a group of parents I liked, I'd probably like the school. I also tried to get some private face-time with at least one of the kindergarten teachers, preferably all of them. My daughter's preschool was a half-day program and she was still napping at the time, which seemed about right to me, but kindergarten was a full-day proposition and I wanted to know what the teachers thought about that.

In the privacy of those one-on-one conversations, I didn't speak with a single one of these teachers who felt full-day school was appropriate for 5-year-olds: it made the day too long, they couldn't concentrate for a full day, they should have more free-time to "just play." It was the parents who demand it, they told me, for "child care" purposes, many of them explaining that the second half of their school day was not at all "academic," focusing more on quite reading or PE or art. Some of these teachers, typically the more senior ones, got quite exercised by this topic, going on to tell me that it was a particular challenge because so much of what had once been considered 1st grade curriculum when they had started teaching had now been pushed down into kindergarten. For instance, kindergarteners, across the board, were being systematically taught to read, whereas that had traditionally been the purview of 1st grade. (I have a concrete memory of arriving for my first day of 1st grade back in 1968 to find a construction paper cutout of a teddy bear on my desk, with the name "T-E-D" written on it -- our first official reading word). Today, there are experts who are pushing the idea that kids should be reading in preschool!

I once tried to get my 3-year-old friend Jaan to hurry up and he responded, "Hey, it's not a race." That was over a decade ago, yet it still comes back to me on an almost daily basis and it applies here, Hey, it's not a race.

Yesterday, Lenore over at the Free Range Kids blog posted a link to the Chicago Now blog where Christine shared a kind of 1st grade readiness list from 1979 that was developed by the highly respected Gessell Institute of Human Development (now called the Gessell Institute of Child Development). Apparently, the idea was that if you couldn't answer "yes" to at least 10 of these markers, your child was not ready for full-day first grade (apparently half-day 1st grade was an option then):

  1. Will your child be six years, six months or older when he begins first grade and starts receiving reading instruction.
  2. Does your child have two to five permanent or second teeth?
  3. Can your child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman, where he lives?
  4. Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored?
  5. Can he stand on one foot with eyes closed for five to ten seconds?
  6. Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels?
  7. Can he tell left hand from right?
  8. Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend's home?
  9. Can he be away from you all day without being upset?
  10. Can he repeat an eight- to ten-word sentence, if you say it once, as "The boy ran all the way home from the store?
  11. Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly?
  12. Does your child try to write or copy letters or numbers?

An interesting list, no? It seems that young children in 1979, indeed, had lower academic expectations placed upon them; appropriate expectations it seems to me. After all, there is absolutely no data to support the idea that early reading, for instance, is an indicator of future academic attainment, so why shouldn't we take it at a more reasonable pace? Hey, it's not a race.

On the other hand, I'm sure number 8 popped out at most of you. It seems that if 1979's academic expectations were lower, the standards for the "life skills" a 6-year-old ought to possess were significantly higher, and this, as Lenore points out was back when the crime rate was much higher than it is today.

There is so much more to learn in school, and in life, than literacy and math, truly useful things like getting around on your own, playing with your friends, and using the basic day-to-day tools of our culture. The list makes me think that childhood was more like, well, childhood in 1979.

I know it's trite to suggest that we let kids be kids, but I'm going to suggest it anyway. Hey, it's not a race.

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leahinlondon said...

Actually, #2 rather popped out at me. What the which?

But yes, I agree completely.

Anonymous said...

LOL - #2 sounded very "waldorf-y" to me.

I like the list - reading will come when the child is ready (barring any specific issues).

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

I teach in the public system and have to bite my tongue and fight my intuition almost daily. Research has shown that children who are "early readers" are NOT better readers, once they reach age eight (when their peers are also reading)...they all kind of read the same, so it all balances out. Which makes me wonder: why shouldn't four year olds paint and build and dream their kindergarten years away? Because before they know it, they're going to be walking 4-8 blocks home alone (once they're six)...ha! I tell my kids OFTEN that it (brushing their teeth, climbing the stairs, getting out the door) is NOT a race...another great post.

amy said...

Interestingly, the cutoff in our area was different when I started school, so I started K at age 4 and first grade at age 5. My youngest will be almost 7 when she starts first grade.

I think full-day kindergarten is awful and half-day isn't worth the time. I'd like a nice four-hour or so day. But then again, I don't work outside the home. Different parents want school to do different things. Lots of parents want a place to stash their kids all day, whether out of need or desire. I'm the one telling the teacher, "I don't care if my child reads by the end of kindergarten. It'll even out in the end," and she's telling me, "So many parents are upset if I don't give the kids more homework." Teachers are in between a rock and a hard place, that's for sure.

FrancesVettergreenVisualArtist said...

@Amy -- my child attends a carefully researched community daycare which has proven to be an excellent choice for our family. I don't consider him "stashed", as if I'd just stuck him a closet somewhere. That's an extremely hurtful turn of phrase and carries a lot of judgement.

However, reality is that the logistics of half-day kindergarten (or preschool, for that matter) are challenging for many of us. Luckily, my small community daycare runs a preschool program. They have play-based programming in the morning, then the kids nap, if they need it, and/or have free play in the afternoon. They will transport kids to a specific kindergarten, too, but I'm not sure I'll get to enroll my child there, we live in on the wrong side of the street. But that would be ideal.

I know someone who just pulled her child out of a private school because in full-day junior kindergarten (basically preschool for 4-5 year olds) he was assigned 90 minutes of homework every evening -- for "university prep". Age 4. So wrong.

Monkey's Mama said...

I'm so glad my son's birthday is today - so he will be six starting Kindergarten. If he had been born earlier I would have held him back anyway as I wanted to have an extra year full of play (for him and me!) (and had always wanted to go to North Seattle Fives - which is awesome btw).

I was torn between an option school that is very close to us (I would have let him walk by himself eventually as there are no busy streets) but in the end chose our neighborhood school which is a lot farther and he will have to cross two busy streets. We will be riding our bikes most days even though we're in the bus zone. I'd rather ride than have him ride the bus for 45 minutes since we're one of the first stops. Don't get me started on that. I think he's ready for full day after doing the four hour day at North Seattle Fives (I hope!)

But he hasn't lost any teeth yet - never heard that before!

RobynHeud said...

I learned how to read early on, as early as four, but because I wasn't pressured into it (it was simply something my parents were always doing and I wanted to do it too) it was never a stressor like I saw for other kids who were being pushed to read before they were ready. Plus, a lot of the stuff they wanted us to read in school was stuff I had no interest in, especially since by the time I started first grade (kindergarten we just did the alphabet and numbers) I was pulling books off my parents' shelves and not the kids' bookcase.

Annicles said...

Here in England full time school starts the school year the child turns five. That means fomr some children they have only just had their fourth birthday when they start full time school. As a teacher I am convinced we are wrong. All we are doing is stressing out children who are not ready for that type of work. Even the children who are, are not ready for such long hours of it. The Scandinavians have it spot on - play based until seven and then they have the physical and emotional skills to embrace and enjoy the type of work we are pushing onto our kids way too young.

Amy said...

I agree but something about your use of the phrase "parents demand it" rubs me the wrong way. It makes us sound like an angry hoarde, eager to get a full day of free childcare so we can get to our Pilates classes. I think the phrase is "desperately NEED it so they can work." Make no mistake--I HATE that I am separated from my kid during the best hours of the day. HATE it.

Anonymous said...

Having been given a directive to teach "test taking skills" to my 4 year olds, I began today. One of the skills "they" want my tater tots to learn is the "hop over" strategy when they are given the letter recognition one minute timed test, where the children are tested one at a time by someone else (not me). The test is a piece of paper with strings of letters upper and lower case letters, and the child must point and read each letter that he or she knows...Are your hackles up yet? So... the hop over strategy is to teach them to "hop over the ones they don't know and keep on going..." Well...we hopscotched to lunch today. I figured I may as well make it fun. Since it's mostly stupid to try and do it any other way. Then we hopped and hopscotched in the lunch room. OOOPS! That upset a lot of more ummmm...teachers that think I'm not rigid enough...Oh well. When I was questioned about my reasoning behind the hopping, I did it in such a way that all was well...I went with the " if you can't blow them away with what they wanna hear...baffle them with bull poop." Really? test taking strategies in pre kindergarten? I'm doing my best to bypass that in a meaningful way...

Unknown said...

absolutely agree! On a similar...common sense has gone missing rant: our sp/lang consultant was telling me the other day that she just spent 2 hours in a group meeting basically being told that no one was doing their job because so many "special ed." students weren't AT GRADE LEVEL!...well, that IS why we have IEP's...INDIVIDUALIZED EDUCATION PLANS. There are many who propose that IEP's would be best used for ALL children- as all children learn and develop at an individual pace. It became aparent to me that we are headed in a very dangerous direction when our program began pushing the "preschool curriculum" to the toddler room...really...anyone know why a two year old can't sit for a 15 min. circle time and answer questions from flash cards!? Good GRIEF people! Common Sense!!! (by the way, this is why I teach a classroom consisting of all children with identified special needs...unfortunately or fortunately, however you look at it...we are overlooked, it is "ok" that we do sensory activities every is ok that we sing and dance and play musical instruments, play with playdough, paint, move at our own pace...because, as I always say, I adapt all of the curriculum...I simply HAVE to :), we simply do all of those things that we all know children need (very little of which are in the "curriculum"). When so many of us have to find ways "around" what is mandated simply to do what is right for is clear there is something wrong!

Lisa said...

Tom, I had a day today, and I went right to your feed to see what you were reflecting on today... I want to thank you for continually fighting the good fight for children. I am an early childhood coach and had the pleasure to visit two preschool classrooms that were wonderful balances of all the mandates and a lot of excellent play. I also visited a classroom where the common sense seemed to be missing, as a previous poster said, and am glad to find it still here at your blog

cake said...

some pre-schoolers just start reading on their own, at age 3, 4 or 5. true story! some early readers were not pushed by overly eager or competitive parents. some kids just start reading early! mine did. but i don't think it puts him ahead, academically, of other kids. it just happens to be what he was interested in, and started doing. for him, reading at age four was "just being a kid." i do agree that no child should be pushed to read before they are ready.

i certainly agree that full day kindergarten is too much. i feel blessed that we were able to keep our child in half day kindergarten at a montessori school. first grade at public school is not something i am looking forward to...

slgrey said...

Wise words about life, as always, thank you for sharing. I tell everyone about how inspiring you are and repost links to you on fb... and it wasn't until you mentioned appreciating the Teach Preschool lady that it occurred to me that you might like to hear from your more silent admirers!

A 5-year-old child to his mom this week when she was getting upset (not with him): "It's okay, Mom. It's not like it's... a fire or something."

How true. Very few things are that serious!

Sybil Runs Things said...

We are sending our just-turned five year old to an option school in the Seattle Public School district for kindergarten this year. I remember at the open house the teachers and principal were explaining how they weren't really allowed to teach how they want to, how kindergarten isn't so much play anymore as it is more like first grade.

The list above cracked me up, too! My older daughter didn't even lose her first tooth until right before her 7th birthday! Too funny.

kirstie said...

To add to Annicles' post, In the UK a child can start school at 4, and then at 3.30 stay after school to do some kind of formal sports instruction (soccer, tennis) and then do 'voluntary' homework. (i.e. your child doesn't have to do it, but they are kind of letting the side down if they don't do their reading or spelling).

To be honest, some children lap this up - they love the formality of school. The problem is that this kind of child who is so easy to manage becomes the expectation, and if your child isn't ready for all this at 4 or 5, (or would simply rather spend their day playing), they are seen as behind, or disobedient.

Well, actually, that's not true. Many teachers don't see these children as behind or disobedient - they just have little power to accomodate them in their classroom.

kristin @ preschool daze said...

for some reason, this post is among my favorite.

i'm all fired up now.