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The Play Debate: Are Kids Too Pressured, Pushed and Prepped?

Kids enjoying free play on the playgroundIn the beginning, there was Sputnik 1. The Russians spun that satellite into space in 1957, and kids in the United States began studying math and science with new vigor and verve. A decade later, the government introduced Head Start, a preschool program aimed at preparing disadvantaged children for school.

Education reform went into full gear in 1983 when the report “A Nation at Risk” found that a “rising tide of mediocrity” threatened America’s public school system.

Fast-forward to the ‘00s — that would be today — and you’re looking at a whole new world of educational expectations. They trickle down from the No Child Left Behind-driven Department of Education, to the crazy competitive college admission process, to the ever-present standardized testing, to real letters-and-numbers academics for the littlest students with their own personal learning style.

Where do those expectations end up? Most likely, at your front door. If you find yourself drilling your 3-year-old on his ABCs because you’re worried he won’t hold his own when he starts school, you’re not alone. “Parents are feeling the pressure,” says Jeannie Ianelli, owner of several Seattle Kumon locations, a tutoring company. “After all, kindergarten is the new first grade.”

It’s no wonder leading psychologists and educators in this country, fed up with what they see as a misguided push for early academics, are demanding we let kids be kids.

“Education is not a race where the prize goes to the one who finishes first,” reads a statement from the Alliance for Childhood, an organization based in Maryland that would like to see schools offer more play and less testing. Alliance backers feel all that cerebral intensity overwhelms kids and contributes to later behavior and learning problems.

The Alliance for Childhood movement is gaining traction. Child-advocate superstars such as T. Berry Brazelton, David Elkind, Daniel Goleman and Mel Levine publicly support its agenda. The media’s getting on board, too: Last year, Newsweek asked, “Are Kids Getting Pushed Too Fast, Too Soon?” More recently, The Boston Globe wrote, “How the Push for Infant Academics May Actually Be a Waste of Time — or Worse.”

And yet research coming out of topnotch facilities such as the University of Washington I-LABS (Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences) shows that very young children learn more quickly and efficiently than adults, and come programmed with critical “windows of opportunity” for learning. Even newborns are busily cramming info. I-LABS co-directors Patricia Kuhl and Andrew Meltzoff wrote the book The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains and How Children Learn. The title alone probably sends chills through the bring-back-play proponents.

Confused yet? No? Then weigh in, if you dare, on the kindergarten clash. In one corner sit teachers and educators, such as Clover Codd, principal at Loyal Heights Elementary in Ballard, who suggest children enter kindergarten equipped with specific, well-defined skills. These include matching pictures with letters, sorting objects into categories, knowing colors and shapes, identifying uppercase and lowercase letters and counting to 31.

In the other corner is teacher Patricia Overy — and others — who feels we’re über-educating our young. “Kids are ready for kindergarten if they are happy, well adjusted, independent and confident, and if they are ready to leave home, listen and get along with others,” says Overy, founder of The Valley School, a private elementary school in Seattle. Maturity, rather than age, is the best gauge for your preschooler's kindergarten readiness.

Child having unstructured play timeThe push for play

You could view the Alliance for Childhood as a rebuttal to the Baby Einstein, earlier-is-better culture that, in the last decade, has exploded with learning ops for tots: lessons in Mandarin; classes in math and literacy; Leapster tech toys that teach subtraction and phonics. But parents must still keep in mind that each child has their own personal learning style.

“Parents are concerned and fearful about their kids’ future,” says Joan Almon, chair of the Alliance for Childhood. “They think their children need to start things as early as possible if they are going to make it in the world.”

Today’s kindergarteners face an excessively amped up curriculum, she says. In the old days, expectations were minimal: You turned 5, you showed up. “Now, parents and teachers have to prepare their 3- and 4-year-olds for kindergarten entry,” Almon says. “And many children are not developmentally ready for this.”

Play, contends Overy, seems to have gone missing. “It’s less valued. People are busy scheduling their kids and taking them to endless lessons. But a 4-year-old still likes the sandbox, finger painting, Play-Doh and story time.”

In the race to meet test standards and boost brainpower, educators are neglecting to make time for old-fashioned fun and creativity, says Dorothy Singer, a Yale University professor and author of Play = Learning. “Teachers are under pressure and teaching in a mechanical, rote way. We’re seeing kids who know they have to prepare for the tests — and are depressed, anxious and on medication.”

There’s little upside to learning the alphabet at age 2, says Almon. “Why does everything have to be at a top, top level? Those parents who are so proud of their child knowing his letters should ask, how does my child play? Is his imagination kicking in?”

What’s more, contends Almon, there’s no research that proves there are any long-term gains from starting children with reading and writing in the preschool years.

The research

In fact, a recent research study suggests just that: According to “School Readiness and Later Achievement,” a University of Michigan report that appeared last November in Developmental Psychology, kids who enter kindergarten with basic math and reading skills are more likely to succeed in school.

The study, headed by Greg Duncan, a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, is based on an analysis of existing data from more than 35,000 preschoolers in the United States, Canada and England.

In other words, according to this report, early academic learning equals later academic success. “Particularly impressive is the predictive power of early math skills,” the study says. While researchers did not look at specific curricula, their findings offer the numbers-and-letters camp considerable credibility.Enhancing your preschooler's reading skills

Which must resonate sweetly with tutoring franchises such as Kumon, a Japanese company with more than 1,400 sites in the United States. In 2003, Kumon — responding to demand — created Junior Kumon to teach math and reading skills to kids as young as 3.

Actually, make that 2. Ianelli works with a (clearly precocious) 2-year-old student at one of her Kumon sites for 10 minutes several times a week. “She can count and recognize numbers to 10 — and is working up to the twenties,” says Ianelli.

“It’s important to start out on the right foot,” says Jenny Cherrytree, director of public relations for Kumon. “If kids start early and are not pushed, they enjoy it. It’s a great chance to hit the ground running.”

To those who claim children are being force-fed too much too soon, Ianelli responds, “Expectations have increased and that’s not going away. Schools are under pressure to teach to the standardized tests. You can’t ignore that reality.”

The reality

“As the president says, ‘What gets measured gets done,’” says Rebecca Neale, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.

That’s the philosophy behind No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal act critics insist has muffled playtime. Under the statute, all students in grades 3 through 8 are tested yearly in math and reading, with each state setting its own learning benchmarks.

While Neale acknowledges NCLB is meant to raise the nation’s academic bar, she’s quick to claim, “NCLB is not there to put a damper on creativity.” The hope, she says, is that teachers use innovative methods to bring students up to grade level in math and reading.

The goal? “The notion of American competitiveness has really been a buzzword the past few years,” says Neale. “We want to ensure our students will emerge as world leaders in technological innovation and science.”

Judging from a recent study released by the American Institutes of Research, we’ve got a ways to go. Comparing standardized test scores of eighth-grade students in the United States with those of their peers abroad, the study found students in Singapore, South Korea and Japan outperform students even in high-scoring states such as Massachusetts.

That’s the kind of evidence that has the Department of Education on edge — and has our own state revising its math standards. In December, Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson introduced a new set of K-12 math goals, based on an earlier review that recommended a more rigorous curriculum for the state’s students.

Preschools pay close attention to elevated expectations and adjust their programs to fit their school districts’ standards. Debra Gibbons, director of Little Gems Preschool, with locations in Sammamish and Pine Lake, raised the learning benchmarks in her classes after neighboring school districts (Lake Washington and Issaquah) upped their kindergarten benchmarks. “It would be doing an injustice to the kids if I didn’t prepare them,” she says.

Instead of merely mastering letters and sounds, Little Gems kids learn words by sight and write books. They also play counting games and practice patterning and graphing. “I try to offer a fun, playful curriculum; the kids don’t even know they’re learning,” says Gibbons.

The answer

So what’s it going to be: work or play? Leapster or leapfrog?

Perhaps a little of each. “There are ways parents can play with their child and support their learning,” says Debbie Kray, director of education at the Children’s Museum of Tacoma.

Eric Liu serves on the Washington State Board of Education and teaches at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs. Last October, Liu took part in a summit held in Tacoma that focused on fostering creativity in education.

“It’s a false choice to think you must decide between creativity and academic rigor,” says Liu. “Play can be purposeful. You can teach someone the basics through creativity.”

Never underestimate the power of imagination, he says. “People who get the cool jobs are ones who exercise their creative muscles. Where would Boeing or Microsoft or the biotech business be without creativity?”

Schools can meet benchmarks without letting the “test” be the point, says Liu. “We need to trust principals and teachers more in helping kids reach standards in flexible and innovative ways.”

Those ways can be as simple as providing kids with a set of blocks, which, according to a 2007 University of Washington study, promotes language development.

Or as easy as piecing together a “house corner.” That’s what Linda Arland, teacher at The Bertschi School in Seattle, does in her kindergarten class. The popular play area includes a kitchen, a basket of stuffed animals, dress-up clothes, baby dolls and a cash register. “The dramatic role-playing that happens there offers a natural arena for children to practice language and social skills,” she says.

9 expert tips for helping young children learn through play:

1. Provide art opportunities. Let kids initiate their own drawings.
2. Encourage make-believe play. It’s a way for them to try on roles and work through what’s going on in their lives.
3. Let them play with other kids. They feel safe trying out language with their friends.
4. Schedule unstructured play. Let the kids choose their own activities.
5. Give children simple materials such as crayons, paper, logs and clay to play with.
6. Read to them and ask them to make up an ending to a story or draw a character. Make it an interactive activity.
7. Play rhyming games.
8. Tell stories that aren’t in books. Children develop a different way of listening that way.
9. “It’s the work of kids to play,” Kray notes. When young children get caught up in today’s stress-filled, study-saturated environment, they lose their love of learning, she says. “And that love of learning is what will help them be strong in academics throughout their lives.”

Linda Morgan is ParentMap’s associate editor and writes frequently about education issues.

Child having imaginative playThe importance of playing alongside your child
Source: The Children’s Museum of Tacoma

Nurture pretend play
Grown-ups can support children’s development of creative thinking skills by encouraging games of make-believe. Here's what you can do:

- Provide props for play. Blocks, Play-Doh, dress-up clothes and pretend kitchens are some standard favorites.
- Augment toys and props with various sizes of empty boxes, novel kitchen utensils and lengths of patterned cloth that become whatever kids can imagine.
- Join in their pretend play. Children love it when grown-ups play make-believe with them, especially when kids are directing the action.

Have conversations with your child
- Children ask a lot of questions because they have so much to learn and they know you can help them do that.
- Talk about what you see your child doing.
- Let your child’s activity take the lead and the conversation will always be of interest to him or her.

Help your child observe
- You can help boost your child’s learning by helping her practice observation.
- Compare shapes, sizes and other qualities of produce (and other grocery items).  
- Sort things (such as veggies) by color.
- Arrange things from smallest to largest.
- Ask your child to describe the things she sees. Which things look the same? What makes them look different?

Great websites to check out:
National Association for the Education of Young Children
Alliance for Childhood “Play in the Early Years: Key to School Success” is a free download on this site that explains how child-initiated play facilitates children’s intellectual, social and emotional development.

Parenting books that discuss unstructured play:
Play = Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth by Dorothy G. Singer, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

The House of Make-Believe: Children’s Play and the Developing Imagination by Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer

The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally by David Elkind

Montessori Play and Learn: A Parent’s Guide to Purposeful Play from Two to Six by Lesley Britton

Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn — And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

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