Preschool: How early is early?
One of the more disturbing notions permeating the minds of many parents, educators, and politicians today is that “earlier is better.” They believe that since children will be required to do reading, writing, and arithmetic when they enter first grade, it is a good idea to get them started on those activities during the preschool years, as this will give them an advantage when they begin formal schooling.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. What children really need to be learning during the early years is “how to learn.” Through fun, fascinating, free-form play activities in which they explore, investigate, experiment, and problem-solve, they are developing the broad concepts and general skills that make them great learners – capable of learning anything specific quickly and easily later on.
It’s like building a house. If you put all your money and effort into the roofing tiles, the siding, the window shutters, and the landscaping, you will end up with a house that looks gorgeous. But if you neglect to pour the concrete foundation and erect the wood and steel frame, all that pretty stuff will be hanging on nothing and will soon collapse. Pictures of the foundation and frame may not make the cover of a magazine, but pouring and erecting them is the critically important work that must be done first.
It is easy to get fooled by the sight of little kids in highly-structured, academically-oriented preschools playing Mozart on tiny violins, reciting Shakespeare, and rattling off all of the state capitals. But these impressive performances really have no long-term significance. If you use the right techniques, you can “train” a young child to do just about anything. But “educating” that child in a way that ensures he truly understands and appreciates what he is doing is another story.
It is a shame that so many parents, educators, and politicians can’t seem to get this into their heads. What used to be done in sixth grade is now being done in third grade. What used to be done in third grade is now being done in first grade. And what used to be done in first grade is now being done in the preschool years. All this has done is to produce an epidemic of learning disabilities and behavioral disorders such as ADHD. Meanwhile, the country that is routinely leading the world when it comes to the performance of elementary school students in reading, writing, and arithmetic is Finland. What is the secret to their success? They do not start the formal academic experience of first grade until the age of seven.