Ever younger academic education is not quality early learning
6 July, 2015 - What happens if your child races and gets to school first, being the youngest student in class? Unlike racing a car or running at the Olympic stadium, starting first in formal learning is not a winning strategy.
In the UK, children start school in the September after their 5th birthday, resulting in an age gap of a year between the oldest and youngest children in the same class. In a study published last month in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London looked at 7267 children who started school in 2011. They found that "many of the youngest children starting school" (those born in the summer months) "do not have sufficient language skills to meet current curriculum targets which are increasingly focused on reading, writing and verbal problem solving". Alarmingly, "only 1.3% of those with language and behaviour problems obtained a good level of academic development at the end of their first year of school". The report concludes that: "The youngest children starting school have relatively immature language and behaviour skills and many are not yet ready to meet the academic and social demands of the classroom".
Does this mean teachers need to do better at teaching academic skills? Or is it time to stop and think about the route we are following? Multiple studies show that investing in the youngest in society provides returns over a life time, ensuring that children are placed on a trajectory towards better employment, health and wealth. Around the world, governments are investing in early childhood learning, but despite this great progress, these investments can have unintended consequences. Over the past year, the LEGO Foundation has voiced its concern about the dangers of "more, earlier", a trend we see of introducing formal academic education at an ever younger age.
Our growing understanding of child development and neuroscience makes for a different argument. We can see that young children naturally engage in activities that set down the foundations for life; they they walk, they listen, they talk, they ask "why?", they play. These are skills that are learned and developed, but not formally taught.
What might seem like a childish distraction, children playing, is actually pivotal for quality early learning. Multiple studies show that play is one of the main ways in which children learn and practice a range of essential skills. For example, if you have ever watched children playing you will have observed them negotiating rules and role-playing in make believe scenarios. Among other things, these children are developing their use of language.
So, if children who have good language skills find it easier to learn to read and perform better in school, what is our conclusion? It is very simple: good language skills are best developed through quality interactions with parents, caregivers and other children - through the medium of play, story telling, and everyday life. An academic focus on doing "more, earlier" is counter productive - it can even create a trajectory towards behavioural problems as children struggle to cope. Instead, quality early learning is about creating purposeful environments and scenarios, supported by caring adults, for learning through play.
Read more on play and early academic challenging goals in this distinct yet related article.