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Formal Instruction in Early Childhood Is Harmful

Concerned that the U.S. is falling behind other nations in providing a quality education, reformers have urged starting formal instruction at  age four or earlier.  But the evidence calls into question the wisdom of this strategy ("Let the Kids Learn Through Play," The New York Times, May 17).

It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with universal pre-K.  On the contrary, it can be invaluable.  It all depends on how it is carried out ("The Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K," The New York Times, Oct. 21, 2014).  The key is to allow children the opportunity to engage in what may seem to outsiders as immature behavior. That's because it is actually the proper basis for developing sound learning habits. 

I'm not saying that converting classrooms into playgrounds is the answer.  But under the eyes of a qualified teacher, unstructured acitivity can be highly educational.  Toddlers learn how to learn. Of course, not all teachers feel comfortable with what appears to be chaos and not all parents do either.  I remember sitting next to my classmates around a table when I was in kindergarten while the teacher had us engage in various activities. This orderly approach worked well for me personally.  But it may not be the best for other toddlers.

The benefits of proper pre-K are felt particularly by low-income children, who are exposed to the kind of stimulating environment they don't get at home.  Critics of Head Start are quick to point to studies showing that gains fade with time.  But I suspect that's because many programs are low quality. Glorified daycare centers are highly unlikely to produce desired outcomes.  That's why I urge stepping up the standards for all pre-K.

Aside from the educational benefits of play, there are the physical.  Very young children are not active enough, according to a new study ("Preschoolers Aren't Getting Enough Exercise, Study Says," Time, May 18).  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least one hour of daily physical activity, but instead they're getting only 48 minutes.

If there's a takeaway from all this, it's let children be children. 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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