Is kindergarten really that important?

The Intellectual Magic of Toddlers

Dec 11, 2018 · 12 min read
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Is kindergarten really that important?

This is such a great question. The answer is no.

Having a specific class for 5 year olds is not very urgent. It doesn’t, by virtue of simply being a government run, scheduled activity provide much benefit at all. Preschool doesn’t have much of an effect on children’s lives, either. So why do we all race around making sure we get our kids to school?

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… because the answer is also yes.

The most important years of our lives

Actually, all of the years before 1st grade are very important, but it is because of the cognitive and behavioral activities that can occur at those time, not the location in a state run classroom. There are many skills that are learned at early ages. People who miss those opportunities are often behind their peers and uncompetitive in the career and relationship world.

There are reams of evidence that preschool, head start, and kinder have tremendous, life-long benefits. These are the only government run programs that I know of that have such tremendous success rates and no negative effects to speak of. I would venture to guess that this is more of a reflection on the benefits of the activities than the association with the government.

Recent trends in education are focused on sitting quietly while working alone on boring, increasingly rote reading and/or math practice, exactly the kind of ‘low grade clerical work’ that Sir Ken Robinson (2006) alludes to. This directly reduces time spent on effective communication, teamwork, independence, creativity, leadership, public speaking, analytical thinking, and problem solving activities. This sounds as bad as it is. It is exactly the opposite of what employers say they are searching for year after year:

What Do Employers Want in a New Hire? (Gewertz, 2018)

We may be coming to a time when the stylish thing to do is to return to the single income model, with one parent caring for the home and children, as our grandparents and countless generations before the 1970s were so successful with.

That generation can’t be all wrong. After all, they invented the first game console, muscle cars, Kevlar, lasers, LEDs, Valium, DRAM computer memory, UNIX, kidney transplants, artificial hearts, Star Trek, communication satellites, the internet, the Civil Rights Act, birth control pills, Sesame Street, the Beatles, and a complicated rocket crazy enough to send humans to walk on the moon.

How have we done so well historically?

The reason for our great success as a species over the last thousands of years isn’t because of learning in an organized state-run program. Plenty of children for thousands of years, have grown up in cultures without these programs and have generated every great idea, new product, and invention we know of.

How were children most often prepared for life in the past? They lived and learned with someone, from birth to the age of 12 or so, who cared about them and taught them what they needed. Who has time for this? Mothers, mostly. Even though stay-at-home mothers historically had a tremendous amount of stress and responsibility, having their children with them was good for the whole family. (Baker, 2001)

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Another main group was rich people, of course. They could afford leisure traveling, hobbies, good food/shelter, and private tutors. Then there were monks and clergy. They were the famous keepers of knowledge and scribers of books throughout recorded history. Relieved from the responsibilities of daily work and resource gathering, these people devoted their lives to learning, and maybe a little alcohol.

Why Listen to Me?

Just so you know where I’m coming from … a bit about me. I have been a chemistry and physics teacher for about 20 years. I have 6 kids, from 10 to 27 years old. I was a single parent for 10 years, but I’m lucky and I met someone special. I’ve been through most of the drama and challenges. I’m just waiting patiently to become a grandpa now.

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I have taught children of ‘well-off’ parents in an affluent area of Los Angeles and also in a very low income school at the edge of the desert. I have taught many racial ratios of students and classes with high numbers of boys or girls. I have students who identify as LGBT, students with disabilities / injuries, students with mental issues, and students with criminal records.

This is what I can tell you from all of my years of study and experience: We are all the same.

We all want to be treated fairly and expect consequences will be fair. We all want to be independent and proud of who we are and what we do. They all want to be important part of our group and produce meaningful work. We all want to feel safe and free to express our ideas.

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What if you miss out?

I go even further than many others in the field who say ‘kids who miss out will have challenges.’ I will defend the idea that there is permanent derailment of development. If we miss it, we miss something important.

Some data is available about neural blooming / pruning and windows of opportunity, but it is difficult to say for certain. The human brain is remarkably plastic and able to overcome tremendous challenges. (Bruer, 2015) Nevertheless, I maintain that there are developmental ‘windows of opportunity.’ If we miss a chance to learn something at the time when our brains are ‘primed’ for it, we lose that opportunity. I believe there are some skills that cannot be replaced once the window closes.

Extreme care must be taken when considering this topic since it has been bounced around in policy debates for decades and has achieved a mythical status of sorts. John Bruer (2015) notes that ‘Neuroscience has a particularly strong effect on non-experts’ judgments, causing them to accept explanations they might otherwise reject.’ Of course, earlier isn’t always better. Some tasks are simply beyond the developmental level of a child until later in life. (Knoll, et.al., 2016)

There are rare exceptions, whether through a traumatic event (Kafka effect), life threatening necessity (modern Guatemala), or simply extreme motivation for a better life (changing behaviors through great focus and effort).

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What is missing if it is missed?

Kids who do not learn about money and investment from their family at a young age are very unlikely to become wealthy — even if they come across some money, they simply do not know how to manage it. A good book about that one is “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.”

People who are born in Japan will always have an accent if they move to the US after a certain age. It won’t matter if they live in the US for 50 years, get a degree in English literature, and are the most skilled and educated person in the room; they will speak with some discernible accent.

Kids who do not practice fine motor skills before age 5 never really catch up. Kids who cannot read before 4 nearly always struggle. Kids who do not learn language skills by age 3 have a high chance of remaining barely literate throughout their lives, even when corrected for IQ (Hertzig & Farber, 1998).

It is important to note that the language skills can be any language. We teachers used to sit around on our high horse and talk about teaching kids about math and science in Spanish, their ‘native’ language, naively thinking that this would address the problem. However, this is not a solution. The majority of immigrants who struggle with English do so because they are illiterate in ALL languages. They missed the window for language skills completely.

There are hundreds of examples. We have all seen these situations. We all know intuitively what it looks like. I am not a researcher in the field of child psychology, so I have only a cursory knowledge of the literature. Perhaps someone can offer a journal article or two that points to this effect.

Until then, I don’t need to understand ‘why’ these students struggle to do my job. All I need to do is admit that they have some difficulties and that it isn’t because of their genetic makeup. They had a bad childhood. They had traumas and / or neglect. I can work with that.

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The learning hyperdrive

Most kids who do not learn to use tools, program computers, play musical instruments, make art, or debate ideas by a certain young age will forever struggle. If they miss the window between roughly 2 and 5 years old, the neural pathways are not reinforced and end up being pruned away at later developmental stages.

During this amazing and creative time in childhood, children have an almost magical ability to effortlessly create new habits that will last a lifetime.

But … if they are not exposed to any stimulation, situations, activities, objects, ideas, and difficulties … there is nothing to learn. Kids who sit in front of a TV or play a game system 6 hours a day lose out on most of the choices in life. The opportunity cost is huge. Economists and sociologists might call this the low ‘capitalization rate’ of our human potential in our society as a definition of wasted talent.

Malcolm Gladwell (2012) has a very interesting talk (also on his podcast) about ‘capitalization rate’ in the US. This is basically the rate at which the people who ‘could’ be successful actually ‘are’ successful in a certain endeavor. It is the utilization rate of our human capital. His ideas are based on the research of others, but his special skill is storytelling. These are the three conditions that constrain our human capitalization rate.

Poverty: a huge amount of mental effort is spent trying to solve the problems of basic necessities like food, shelter, medical care, and transportation.

Stupidity: e.g. Birthdate cutoffs - Grouping kids by age range instead of ability level leads to unforeseen consequences. If you are younger than all of your peers in your cohort, by up to a year, you are at a huge disadvantage developmentally. This can lead to feelings of inferiority and hopelessness, and even child suicide. (Thompson, Barnsley, & Dyck, 1999). On the other hand, the oldest kids in a cohort are treated as if they are geniuses and given special treatment because they can do things so much better than their peers, not realizing that is it mostly a factor of age and not any sort of special ability. (Barnsley & Thompson, 1988)

Cultural: Cultures that value education and professional achievement do better. For example, Chinese American immigrants perform at an effective IQ level substantially higher than their white counterparts. Culturally, their capitalization rate for professional success is 20% higher than the white population in the US. (Flynn, 1991)

It is interesting that all of these factors are outside influences, namely society, government, and culture. It is interesting because that leads to the conclusion that if everyone would leave us alone to do what we want, we would all be more successful. I’m sure I will think of that a lot more as time passes.

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What is the answer?

It is simpler than it sounds. Perhaps not easy, but simple. The main goal of the years from 1 to 4 need to be teaching the children. That’s it. Everything else must serve that end or you aren’t doing your best. Whatever job or social life you have must revolve around that.

If you are in a traditional two parent family, plan to stay home for a few years when you have children. Scale back on expenses and life changes for a few years. Make a plan to be a one income family. Meet other parents of young children and do things together. This helps you not go insane, which is a highly possible event if you spend every waking hour with a toddler or two.

If you are a single parent, try to make arrangements to move in with grandparents, siblings, or childhood friends for a few years, work part time to take care of minimal financial responsibilities, and take turns teaching the kids. Grandparents know a lot!

If you aren’t a parent yet, think carefully and make a good plan. Kids don’t come with an instruction manual and there will be thousands of mistakes you will make, but planning to spend your time with them instead of other people is a simple goal to work on.

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For what it’s worth, this is my opinion: To become ‘qualified’ as ‘parent-ready’, I recommend people be 23 and up, have college or career settled fairly well, be in a long term relationship for at least two years (with someone who has a job!!), and have all of your friend and family relationship issues as settled out as they can be. Basically, no drama. Did I follow this ideal path? Not even close. But now that I know a lot more, that is what I would suggest.

If you do not have the time to give kids experiences, journeys, and activities that will broaden their horizons due to work and life pressures, at least send them to a good preschool and kinder. There are wonderful places with caring people who will do a great job helping give your kids experiences and insight into the world. Ask around, get recommendations, visit often. Keep an eye on those folks. Always remember:

Nobody will ever love and care for your children as much as you will.

Make sure schools have a wide variety of activities. It would be difficult to find a school with all of these, but look for a large variety of experiences like music, art, reading, religion (whichever one you please, but I think belief systems are important), computer skills, building (maker projects), social activities, plays, sports, physical activities, puzzles to solve, social skills, history lessons, science experiments, uses for basic math, explaining ideas, teaching each other, and field trips.

If you find this perfect nirvana, let us know! But seriously, find the best you can. Volunteer one day a week at the school to share your passion or expertise. Encourage other parents to come in for half days and share theirs. Any experience is good. Get to know the staff and teachers. Bring them snacks or little gifts once in a while. Offer to supervise field trips or help around the office during busy times. Work together with them and you will be a huge part of your kids’ lives even if you have to work half or full time.

Above all, find people who love kids and take pride in the very important work that they do for our children … and buy them a snack or school supplies once in a while.

Reference List.

Baker, B. M. (2001). “In Perpetual Motion: Theories of Power, Educational History and the Child”. Ann Arbor, MI: P. Lang.

Barnsley, R. H., & Thompson, A. H. (1988). Birthdate and success in minor hockey: The key to the NHL. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement,20(2), 167–176. doi:10.1037/h0079927

Bruer, J. T. (2015). Windows of opportunity: Their seductive appeal(5th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 1–8, Rep.). Evidence Speaks.

Flynn, J. R. (1991). Asian Americans: Achievement beyond IQ. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Gewertz, C. (2018, August 27). What Do Employers Want in a New Hire? Mostly, Good Speaking Skills. Retrieved December 11, 2018, from https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/high_school_and_beyond/2018/08/good_speaking_tops_list_of_skills_employers_want_most.html

Gladwell, M. (2012, January 12). Malcolm Gladwell Explains Why Human Potential Is Being Squandered. Retrieved December 11, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kspphGOjApk

Hertzig, M. E., & Farber, E. A. (1998). Annual progress in child psychiatry and child development, 1997. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel.

Knoll, L. J., Fuhrmann, D., Sakhardande, A. L., Stamp, F., Speekenbrink, M., & Blakemore, S. (2016). A Window of Opportunity for Cognitive Training in Adolescence. Psychological Science,27(12), 1620–1631. doi:10.1177/0956797616671327

Robinson, K. (2006). Do schools kill creativity? Retrieved December 11, 2018, from https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity/up-next?language=en

Thompson, A. H., Barnsley, R. H., & Dyck, R. J. (1999). A New Factor in Youth Suicide: The Relative Age Effect. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry,44(1), 82–85. doi:10.1177/070674379904400111

Mike Treanor

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Writing about AI, technology, science, psychology, education, and the creativity that connects them all.

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