Think about your school when you were a child.  Did you like going to school or dread it?  Do you remember being happy there or was it all hard work?  I honestly don’t remember much from those early school days, but I remember my mom telling me I was excited the first day and then came home and said I was bored.  That being said, I remember many good things about my elementary school days.  A few bad things, of course, but I was generally a good kid and did well in school so it was a pretty positive experience.

I remember having recess at least twice a day (and playing on playground equipment that would likely be banned today), having special events at school, and making all sorts of crafty things that I still have in scrapbooks in my basement.  As I’ve become a teacher myself, I wonder what that experience will look like when my own son gets to be school age.  Ask anyone who teaches kindergarten and they’ll tell you that kindergarten is not what it was when I went.

Kids are expected to be reading before leaving kindergarten, yet many of them enter it without knowing any letters or sounds.  It’s setting up a five year old with a pretty unrealistic expectation.  The learning that used to happen in first grade has now been bumped down to the younger ones, regardless of whether those learners are prepared for such a load.

Kids are coming to school younger and much less prepared than ever before.  Daycare is expensive and school is free.  Many families require both parents to work outside the home, and often multiple jobs, to make ends meet so there isn’t a parent home all the time to read to them.  Then on top of all that, we cut down on art, music, physical education, and recess and then expect them to sit still for eight hours.  Anyone else not surprised by the growing number of ADD/ADHD labels in schools today?

Today, I read an article from this past fall that talked about the vast differences between kindergarten in the United States and Finland (read the article here).  The Finns take a very different approach to learning with the little ones.  The vast majority of their day is spent at play and “real learning” happens when students are ready (though really, they’re learning all the time they’re playing, just not in the traditional sense).  In more and more American schools, however, children are expected to spend up to half of their day in reading instruction with minimal amounts of time for free play and physical movement.

A study from New Zealand cited in the article said that children who learn to read at age seven catch up to their peers who learn at age five, and by age eleven the two groups have comparable skills.  So why the big push to start so young?  Not only do our younger “readers” not come out ahead in the long run, I’d venture to guess that many of them actually come out behind.  If reading is drilled into you for 3 hours a day, will you ever learn to love it?  Will you ever think of school as a place to learn and grow or will it always be the land of rules, worksheets, and no fun?

I feel fortunate that so much of my own training has been centered around teaching children through play.  My approach to musical literacy has always relied on kindergarten to lay the foundation of sound and experience and never begins true “reading” until first grade.  My lessons centered around play and experience; often students wouldn’t see what we were doing as “work” or even learning because they were having so much fun (on a side note, I also had very few behavior issues in class because the students were playing and moving all the time).

According to the article, the Finns have a saying that goes, “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.”  Read that again.  Now think back to your own days at school, both as a student and as a teacher (if you are one).  How much of what you did was done with joy?  And how much do you remember?

I can already hear some of the teachers I know saying, “School isn’t supposed to be fun.  Kids are there to learn, not have fun.”  Why can’t it be both?  Is there some unwritten rule that says you can’t have fun while learning?  Or some thought that if your class is fun that the kids aren’t learning anything?

We need to let kids be little.  In case you don’t believe me, consider these:

“Play is the work of the child.” – Maria Montessori

“Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw

“Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” – Plato

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” –  Fred Rogers

They will learn, no matter when they begin.  But they can never go back to being little.