Career Ready Kindergarten

Why we should “Let The Children Play”

Photo credit: Trudy Knox (2019)

There is a growing misconception that giving a child the best start in life means unlocking their academic potential as early as possible. Increasingly, kindergartens are sacrificing playtime for greater academic seat time in pursuit of distant future rewards. Career ready kindergarten has arrived.

Below I have paired two contrasting kindergarten videos that caught my attention this week. One shows a “perfect start to the day” at a ‘no excuses’ Brooklyn elementary school focused on ‘college readiness’ “from day one”. The other is a Montessori inspired kindergarten in Tokyo featuring an innovative design which gives children the “freedom to range around the classroom and learn via discovery.”

The videos piqued my interest because, over the past few months, my wife and I have engaged in a f̶i̶e̶r̶c̶e̶ b̶a̶t̶t̶l̶e̶ passionate discussion about how and where we educate our children. As our eldest edges ever closer to kindergarten age, it’s decision time, and we are on the clock.

So which is better, kindergarten with an academic or play-based focus?

“They can relax and chat but they know they have to stay in their seats and keep their voices at a certain level.”
“The free plan design encourages independence and collaboration, without forcing children to sit still and silent for long periods.”

What is the purpose of school?

At a time when children’s mental health issues are on the rise, more kids than ever are overweight and obese due to sedentary lifestyles, and risk-averse parenting has strangled opportunities for unstructured free play, asking five-year-olds to sit for hours to learn discrete facts, motivated by the possibility of wealth and success in the distant future, just seems like a recipe for disaster. But educating for future-readiness is hardly a new idea.

In 1916 John Dewey argued that using school as preparation for a remote future rendered the work of teacher and student “mechanical and slavish.” More recently, Dr Susan Engel, author of The End of the Rainbow: How Educating For Happiness (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools, proclaimed,

Personally, I don’t look at the knowledge-rich, strict-warm, procedure and routine based learning in the first video and think “I want that for my kid!” In programs like this, kids don’t just learn to read and write, they also learn that ‘success’ requires compliance, correct posture and correct answers. They understand that learning is motivated by punishments and rewards. They know that the teacher is the most important person in the learning process. I wonder what role play plays in this type of schooling?

According to Dr David Whitebread, the physical benefits of play are mostly well understood by educators and parents, but “the emotional and cognitive benefits of play are not nearly so well recognised, either by parents and the general community, or by educational and other policy makers.” In contrast to the school readiness crowd, Professor Engel believes,

But at the end of the day, for parents who choose academic readiness kindergarten programs over more balanced play-based programs, the sacrifices are worth it, right?

Little To Gain, Much To Lose

In a 2015 report titled Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose, Professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige reported that “research shows greater gains from play-based programs than from preschools and kindergartens with a more academic focus” and that “no research documents long-term gains from learning to read in kindergarten.”

“The age of onset of reading is not predictive of ultimate intellectual aptitude or achievement”- Carol Black, A Thousand Rivers.

As Sahlberg and Doyle note in Let The Children Play*, many children are just not developmentally ready to learn to read in kindergarten. Highlighting the work of Professor Carlsson-Paige, Sahlberg states “there is no research showing long term advantages to reading at [age] 5 compared to reading at 6 or 7.” And “The research is clear, faster is not better when it comes to reading in the early years.”

*Editorial note: William Doyle is co-author of Let The Children Play. This was not in our original submission.

So not only do school-readiness programs rob children of the opportunity to develop vital skills and habits through free play, they do so without significant long-term benefit. As if that wasn’t bad enough, keep in mind that some families pay for this privilege, wrongly believing the scarcity, exclusivity and expense associated with many of these programs is ‘what is best’ for kids.

I will leave you with this quote from play advocate Dr Peter Gray:

It is past time to push back. Beware the career-ready kindergarten.



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Abe Moore

Education blog. "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say" - Flannery O'Connor