We've all heard about how difficult it is to get children into "the best" preschools these days -- how you basically have to get your kid on "the list" when you're still pregnant. And, of course, we've all heard parents brag about how many numbers, letters, and words their impossibly-young-year-old knows.
In fact, a lot of kindergartens now recommend that kids know letters, numbers, and even basic addition and subtraction before the start of the school year (meaning kids show up having learned fractions). Which, in this psychologist's opinion, is counterproductive. The best way to give your child a creative, entrepreneurial mind has nothing to do with flashcards. But we'll discuss this more later.
That's not how it used to be! Here's a checklist to see whether your child is ready for first grade, taken from Your Six-Year-Old: Loving and Defiant, by Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D., in 1979:
1. Will your child be six years, six months or older when he begins first grade and starts receiving reading instruction?
2. Does your child have two to five permanent or second teeth?
3. Can you child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman, where he lives?
4. Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored?
5. Can he stand on one foot with eyes closed for five to ten seconds?
6. Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels?
7. Can he tell left hand from right?
8. Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend's home?
9. Can he be away from you all day without being upset?
10. Can he repeat an eight- to ten-word sentence, if you say it once, as "The boy ran all the way home from the store"?
11. Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly?
12. Does your child try to write or copy letters or numbers?
1) The world is a very safe place. In fact, it's actually safer now than it was in the 1970s, as kidnappings and violent crime rates are both down. As I wrote in Playborhood Your Neighborhood: The Best Gift You Will EVER Give Your Child:
In 1999, only 115 children nationwide were victims of a “stereotypical kidnapping” by a stranger; the overwhelming majority were abducted by a family member. That same year, 2,931 children under 15 died as passengers in car accidents. Driving children around is statistically more dangerous than letting them roam freely.
2) Outdoor play is important for kids' development. Running up and down hills, climbing trees, jumping, throwing, biking, exploring -- these are all important for a kid's gross motor skills development. These are the skills that allow your child to function without your help -- and to manipulate the world around them. Being a child is all about figuring out your own limits, and how to become masters of their own environment. I mean, think about every children's book or movie ever. What's the first thing that happens? The parents die, or are kidnapped, or sent off to war, or somehow removed from the picture. Only then can the child conquer their demons (literally or figuratively).
This theme is so widely prevalent because childhood isn't just about love and magic... it's also about developing your sense of self.
With constant adult supervision and insufficient outdoor play, kids miss out on important muscle development, as well as important lessons in self-efficacy, self-regulation, and self-empowerment. Many parents today shudder at the idea of sending their kids on a 4-8 block mission alone. They're not sure if their kids can do it. All first graders used to be able to do it -- so either you're underestimating your child, or you've stifled them.
3) It's kind of pointless to slave drive young children academically -- their brains, like their bodies, develop at different rates. If the part of your brain that processes math concepts hasn't developed yet, you can't do math. Maybe your verbal skills are good enough that you can remember, "If someone says, 'What's 2+2?' I'm supposed to say, '4.'" But that math isn't actually enriching, fun or meaningful to you.
Before the start of fourth grade, it's extremely hard to tell if differences in classroom achievement are due to ability or maturity. As I once wrote in There's a Reason Most Schools Don't Have a "Gifted Track" Till 4th Grade,
Just because you’re the tallest in your class when you’re 3 doesn’t mean you’ll still be taller at 8. The other kids might catch up – or even beat you!
Another confounder is that, prior to third grade, it’s hard to tell if a child’s performance is due to their ability or past exposure to that material. A kid who shows up at kindergarten having already learned the alphabet at home is not necessarily “smarter” than a child who can paint beautifully but hasn’t learned the alphabet yet.
So how can you, as a parent, help your child achieve this most meaningful and lasting of learning?
First, read Playborhood Your Neighborhood. Do everything it says to do in the post to set up a safe, fun, collaborative play community in your neighborhood. Make it a priority. If you need more help, order Mike Lanza's book, Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place of Play. If that doesn't inspire you, I don't know what will.
If they love riding their bike, get them a really cool, really safe helmet. And even elbow pads, if that will make you feel better. I'd tell you what they'll learn while they're outside biking, but, honestly, the list of possibilities is too endless.
Which is awesome! Because, as I wrote in APs Make You Look Complacent, Not Curious:
Colleges don't want to fill their ranks with zombies. They've gotten better, lately, at recognizing the difference between a hoop-jumper who wants to do one of six things after graduation, or whose only real goal is getting into their first-choice school (which, by the way, is not an accomplishment)... and someone with real interests. Real passion. Real courage.
Because in today's toxic, high-achieving, and sometimes suicide-inducing environment... it takes courage to not follow the same path as everyone else. It takes courage not to push yourself to tears on a weekly basis. It takes courage not to take on more than you can handle -- and, instead, to develop your real passions. Whether they be Harry Potter links, vintage fashion, ear training, or something else.
Real passion is getting rarer and rarer as more kids hurry through childhood, sacrificing playtime for homework and flashcards time. And parents aren't helping. Last week, when a New York elementary (elementary!) school banned homework, parents weren't supportive. They were enraged! Many threatened to pull their kids out of that school if the policy wasn't changed.
Parents didn't want their kids to play. They wanted their kids to stress and do busywork. I guess they missed the memo: the best way to give your child a creative, entrepreneurial mind isn't with flashcards. It's through great questions, great dialogue and exploration.