There are likely several reasons why most schools across North America and Britain are failing children.
Hopefully this won’t sound like a rant, but it is something I am very passionate about.
Each year, there seems to be a bigger push to introduce academic skills such as letter and number recognition, reading, writing and math to kids at younger and younger ages.
This push for teaching academic skills to children at an early age began many years ago when it was realized that children from low income families or those living in poverty were not doing as well as their peers in school.
As a result, governments thought it would be best to immerse all children in equal standardized school programming with a focus on the skills that some of these children were lacking as they went through school, specifically reading, writing and math (Source).
Surely, if we start teaching these skills from a very young age to all children, no matter their family situation, all of these children will be better off as they get older, right?
Wrong, and this is what leads me to the main reason why school systems are failing young children.
#1 Reason School Systems are Failing Young Children
That reason is maturation and child development!
The bottom line is that most children are not developmentally ready to take on the challenges of the academic skills being taught!
Of course there are going to be children who are ready to read at the age of 4 or 5 (and some even younger), however, these children are in the minority. (Source)
If an adult were to take a class to learn a new language (Mandarin, for example) and on the first day of class the teacher said “Welcome to Lesson 1, today we will start with asking and answering questions in Mandarin. In Lesson 2 you will learn Mandarin for business communications”. I’m pretty sure you would feel quite overwhelmed.
This is how many children feel when they are expected to perform tasks that are above where they are with regards to maturity and development.
A child needs to learn fundamental skills, most of which are acquired through play and inquiry based learning, before academic skills can be tackled.
Let’s take reading for example.
Did you know that children who are taught to read before they are developmentally ready may struggle with reading comprehension later on?
This is because these children tend to use the right side of the brain more as this area develops faster than the left.
As a result, these children often guess at words using clues such as word length and beginning and ending sounds (my daughter was this child!).
They also get frustrated after reading only a few sentences.
And usually they cannot answer questions about the text they have read.
However, when children are taught to read when they are older (over 6 years of age) or when they have shown a natural interest in reading, the left side of the brain has developed and pathways connecting both sides of the brain have had a chance to form.
These children will still memorize short sight words, but they are also about to use additional strategies such as sounding out words (phonics) and visualizations in order to read. (Source)
But this article isn’t about reading.
It is about the fact that kids are being expected to learn and excel at skills that they aren’t developmentally ready for.
Why is it that so many children have a hard time sitting down and completing “desk work?”
There are probably several reasons, but a big one is that the work being assigned is not appropriate for the developmental level of the child.
A tuned in teacher with a good understanding of child development will provide these children with movement breaks, maybe even allow them to stand at their desk or sit on an exercise ball so they can squirm around while “working”.
However, these “strategies” will only work temporarily.
Again, it all goes back to the fact that most children are not ready to learn what is being taught.
I can cite study after study that encourage the positive aspects of play in a child’s development.
And many experts believe that a child’s ability to play will lead to school success in the future!
Is There A Solution?
The solution to this problem isn’t as simple as letting children “play” at school.
Play based learning must still take into account the child’s developmental level.
Ideally, play based learning teaches children essential skills that will help with academics later.
Play based learning can also be used to teach academic skills in a way to keep a young child interested and attentive.
Thus, the information being taught has a better chance of being understood and remembered (again, assuming that the information being taught is developmentally appropriate for the age of the child).
A great example of teaching a skill such as counting through play is as follows:
Let’s say little Tommy is fascinated by trains.
He loves to build trains out of blocks (helping develop his fine motor skills and problem solving), push toy trains around a track (helping to develop his gross motor skills) and color pictures of trains (helping to develop his fine motor skills, color awareness and pre-printing), etc.
Since he is interested, this is a good time for the teacher to start counting the trains with him.
I bet in no time little Tommy will tell his teacher how many trains are on the track, and maybe he can even figure out how many trains are left when the teacher takes 2 of them away.
But, if Tommy were given a worksheet with 5 flowers and was asked to count the flowers, he may just look the other way.
He isn’t interested in flowers.
In order for children to succeed academically they must have all the skills necessary to be successful, and many of these skills cannot be taught in a “sit at your desk and listen to me” environment.
If the skills are above the child’s current level of development, they also cannot be effectively taught through play.
Once the children have the fundamental skills required for academics they will be in a better spot to learn new information.
But even then, young children learn best when they are interested in the topic.
This is why following a child’s lead is so important.
Importance of Pre-Academic Skills
There are many skills that children need to acquire before tackling academics.
Think of these skills as building blocks.
These early skills are the foundation that will set the stage for all the other skills the child has yet to learn.
Let’s take another look at the example of learning to read.
It seems that a likely first step in teaching a child to read would be to start by teaching the alphabet and letter sounds and then memorizing “sight words” and sounding out longer words.
But did you know that the foundation skills of rhyming, sound segmentation, sound blending, etc. (also known as phonemic awareness) need to be taught first?
In fact, some of these “base skills” aren’t mastered until a child is over the age of 6.
Another often overlooked “pre-academic skill” is social emotional development.
Many children arrive in Kindergarten unable to self regulate and have difficulty vocalizing their emotional state.
And don’t get me started on sharing.
Young children are very egocentric and do not understand that other people view things differently than they do.
In fact, egocentrism sticks around until a child is closer to age 7!
Ideally Kindergarten and Grade 1 should be when children are learning these foundation skills, not having to write standardized tests and learning about things they have absolutely no interest in! Fortunately in Canada (where I am) standardized testing doesn’t begin until Grade 3.
I have worked in schools as a speech-language pathologist and now as an educational assistant and I know from first hand experience that young children are falling behind and behaviors are escalating.
From what I have seen this is because the expectations placed on many of these children exceed their capabilities.
And then throw in another 20 to 30 students and one frazzled teacher and things are bound to explode!
What Can Parents/Caregivers Do?
I believe in the public school system and that children do benefit from routines and structure.
There is definitely a time and a place for traditional academics and learning.
However, teaching these “academic” skills at a young age is not the way to go.
Rather, make sure your child is exposed to many new words, books and experiences.
Children’s language skills and vocabulary size are a great predictor of future academic success! (Source)
In fact, language development, vocabulary and social skills are better indicators than being able to read or write at an early age.
Parents of 6 year old children or younger, take the time to immerse your child in a language rich environment, introduce them to many new words through play and book reading (parent reading to the child without the expectation of the child reading independently)!
Use open ended toys such as play kitchens, blocks, ride on vehicles, dolls, tents etc. to build their vocabulary, social skills and problem solving abilities.
And when your child is actively running around and playing he is also unknowingly building his fine and gross motor skills, problem solving, social skills, speech and language development, etc. which will help him succeed later on!
You brought up a topic that I care about immensely. Researches have deemed the age from birth to 8 is when the child learns the most. I feel that educators have misunderstood this conclusion and think that as much academic learning as possible should be forced fed to the child at an early age to give them a head start on life. They totally miss the important points you brought up regarding maturation of the brain. And that a child must be interested in an activity in order to learn effectively.
I appreciated the depth of analysis you used peppered with references that gave weight to your article. I loved your example of a child learning math through playing with trains. What if schools asked the kids what they were really interested in and used those items to create learning experiences? One child may like trains. Another may like flowers. So why not give them problems to solve using the items they like?
For example, a teacher could give each child 10 items of the things they like. Of course there should be limits on how may types of things there are. I am convinced that the logistics are manageable. So the teacher could tell them to separate this into two equal piles. Then ask them how many were in each. The next question could be to take one item from one pile and two from another and ask them if they combined these items how many would they have? I think you can guess where I am going with this.
May I bring up a related educational situation? Children who learn musical instruments or play in the school band do better academically compared to those who do not. I feel this relates to what you stated in your article. When children like what they are doing they learn better. Playing music combines math, literature, reading, emotional expression in ways that are fun. Depending on the teacher of course ha! when there is a budget crunch, guess what classes get canned. Music.
There are schools that are extremely successful in educating children. And I am sure they do that using the techniques you discussed. If only these success stories were shared publicly, that could be the catalyst for change.
Thank you for your very insightful comment Edwin! We are lucky here in Canada that music is still valued in the public school system. Beginning in grade 1 children participate in music with their class a few times a week.
I think one of the main problems is that our society push us to believe that the earlier our children learn to read, write and calculating numbers the smarter they will become. That’s why many parents push their children to learn things before they are ready because they think they will become smarter or better than the rest. It’s a huge problem that parents and teachers don’t pay attention to each child but offer a standard education for all without taking into account the uniqueness of each child and not all develop the same.
You’re right Stratos! Parents have been misinformed and there are many that are paying ridiculous amounts of money for tutoring and enrichment programs in hopes of providing even more “academic training” to their children that they may not be receiving in schools. Our society has equated academic success to life success and many well meaning parents and educators assume that the earlier a child gets started with formal learning the better off they will be in life. But this couldn’t be further from the truth as we can see from the sky rocketing depression and anxiety rates in today’s children.
I agree with your article. Not only in the US and UK, but I think the whole world has forced education on children, with or without their ability to comprehend learning. And I can say that many parents have put their children to class at very young ages so that they can tackle their 9-5 jobs.
The children are forced to learn skills for their age and this is coupled with lots of homework. This leaves little room to play and no wonder children are getting frustrated each day.
If only more and more schools would emphasize on the play based learning, children would find it fun to learn and not feel like they have been burdened. Academics can come later when they are fully developed and ready to learn the serious stuff.
This is a very informative article.
Thank you for your comment Carol. By trying to get kids ready for college before they are even out of preschool, we are doing a huge disservice to the development of children. I just wish more people would realize this, especially those who are in a position to bring change to schools.
Great post, amazing work! Really explanatory! As a parent of a toddler, I’d like to get some guidance on how to help my child learn, and this post does an amazing job helping me do just that. Even if someone doesn’t read the reason why the tips are invaluable. Definitely in my pocket list.
You’re welcome Marios! Children learn best naturally and through play. Everything is new to a young child so there are endless learning opportunities. We need to move away from the idea that children are only learning if they are immersed in traditional academics such as math, writing, science, reading, etc. A toddler is learning every time they go to the park for example.
Excellent article! It is a theme, which is becoming more and more acute … I do not have children yet, but we are already thinking about them and now I am thinking about education itself in addition to the question of vaccination, etc. The process of education is outdated, in my opinion it should change significantly, it often suppresses the essence of personality, displaces hidden talents (but also those that are not hidden), neglects financial literacy, does not focus on spirituality (not confusing with religion) etc.
Thanks for your comment Michal. I agree that changes really need to be made.
This is an excellent write up! With technology running rampant these days, it’s like we’ve forgotten to let our kids climb trees or make mud pies! The focus these days is to get your kid ahead academically, but they leave social learning at the wayside.. If kids cant co-operate or interact with other kids or do simple tasks for themselves (all things taught through play) knowing their abc’s or math skills at early ages wont benefit them..good read, thanku..
Well said Jewell! You are correct. Social skills and many other skills such as problem solving have to be learned implicitly through play. If things keep going the way they are we will end up with a generation of helpless, socially awkward people with many mental health issues since everyone will be so anxious from stress and pressure to succeed.
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