Monday, February 23, 2015

Learning with Littles

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The earlier the better, right?

There has been a commonly held belief that the earlier formal education begins the better the outcomes for children. This belief, widely accepted and promoted, is behind preschool reading programs, head-start schools, and other educational initiatives that often find widespread political support. It is now expected that when a child enters kindergarten, he will have a grasp of the alphabet and may be able to write his name. But what if the evidence contradicted these initiatives? What if the early introduction of formal education actually had the opposite effect of what was intended? What if evidence showed that play was more important than lessons for youngsters?

What the research says

I am fascinated by educational research, as regular readers have probably deduced. Just like nutritional research so much information is contradictory and confusing because anyone can find numbers or a study to support their position. What I am most interested in is research that ends up supporting long-held beliefs and traditions. There may be a thousand studies that elevate one food group above another but they all eventually fall by the wayside as researchers agree that moderation and exercise are truly the keys to healthy living–not an a├žai berry and flax seed or no carb diet. Much the same is true of educational research, so when I started reading about programs designed to get children reading and learning math principles as early as 3 or 4 years of age, I had a sense that something was amiss. 

Sure enough, an article at The Conversation website shows that:
"There is no research evidence to support claims from government that “earlier is better”. By contrast, a considerable body of evidence clearly indicates the crucial importance of play in young children’s development, the value of an extended period of playful learning before the start of formal schooling, and the damaging consequences of starting the formal learning of literacy and numeracy too young."
This is something every parent has probably sensed as they watch their child grow and learn. I get weekly emails from a parenting website that lists developmental milestones my son ought to have reached. After reading these for weeks and finding them to be nothing but a source of anxiety I quit opening those emails because I found that my son learns at his own pace. Sometimes he hits a milestone weeks before the email outlining that one hits my inbox, other times it's weeks afterwards. This is something parents catch on to and when we do our anxiety is lessened as we accept the individuality of our children and enjoy watching them develop at their own pace. But our culture is one based on measurable achievement so when our children reach school age (now seen as 3 or 4) the pressure is back on.

Achievement based programs in preschool

With the pressure on schools to prove performance through testing, more and more schools are introducing structured educational lessons in pre-K programs. Instead of Kindergarten purely being about play, creative exploration, and social interaction, schools are now expected to teach subjects that have "measurable" outcomes. The trouble is that at this age children's brains may not be ready to process these sorts of lessons. 

Playing is more important!

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On the contrary, research has shown that playing causes developments linked to "enabling humans to become powerful learners and problem solvers" (link). Pushing formal learning before children's brains are reading to process it causes a short-circuit in this development! There is a tragic irony at work here. Researchers James Christie and Kathless Roskos have compiled evidence that shows "a playful approach to language learning offers the most powerful support for the early development of phonological and literacy skills!"

I think that this sort of evidence should be so encouraging to parents, especially homeschooling parents! There is a beauty in allowing children to just be children. When you create an atmosphere of learning within your home environment and provide stimulating toys, read stories, play games of imagination–this can all be chalked up to education but without the stress of formal instruction. Parents of young children can enjoy those precious years of play without feeling as though their children are going to fall behind. In fact, they are laying the groundwork for academic success! In fact, according to other research the reading-ability gap between children who begin formal education at age 5 verses age 7 disappears by age 11–except that the group who began younger has a negative attitude toward reading and scores lower on text comprehension. 

The article linked above has all sorts of links to studies and further analysis if you are interested in learning more. And I want to hear from you? Have you pursued a play-based approach to the early years? What does your homeschool look like for your youngsters? How has pursuing a Charlotte Mason approach helped you feel comfortable in a less-structured approach? Or have you found success with a more formal approach?

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