Education Week: Educating Too Early

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Look at promotional material for preschool and daycare in your area. Chances are, there’s an emphasis on math, pre-reading, and other academics. And why not? We’ve been told for years that our little ones should play with educational toys and attend enrichment programs designed to boost learning. Well-intentioned parents follow this advice. We do this because we believe that learning flows from instruction. Logically then, early instruction will help maximize a child’s potential.

But learning in young children (and perhaps at all ages) has much more to do with curiosity and exploration. Recent studies with four-year-olds showed, “Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning.” It also limits a child’s creativity, problem solving, and openness to ideas beyond the situation at hand. This is true when the instruction comes from parents as well as teachers.

As Wendy S. Grolnick explains in The Psychology of Parental Control, research shows that rewards, praise, and evaluative comments actually undermine motivation and stifle learning in preschoolers as well as school-aged children. Again, true when it comes from parents as well as teachers.

Highly instructional preschool programs have been studied for years. Although they’re more popular than ever, the outcomes don’t hold up under scrutiny. Researchers followed children who attended different preschool environments.  Some children were enrolled in an academic setting, others in a child-initiated play setting, and a third group in a preschool that balanced both approaches. By the middle grades, children from the play-oriented preschool were receiving the highest grades. They also showed the most social and emotional maturity.  Those who had attended the academic preschool lagged behind in a significant way–poorer social skills. The differences became more apparent as these children got older. By age fifteen, students from the academic preschool program showed twice as much delinquent activity as the other two groups. And in adulthood, former students of the play preschool and balanced preschool showed higher levels of success across a whole spectrum of variables. The academic group did not attain the same level of education as the play group and required more years of treatment for emotional impairment. They also faced more felony arrests than the other two groups.

Susan K. Stewart notes in Preschool: At What Cost? it was common knowledge in our grandparents’ generation that children should be raised with an emphasis on compassion, self-control, and social skills along with plenty of opportunities for play. It may not be as easy as that, but it doesn’t have to be as complicated as lessons for toddlers.


Additional resources

“Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” by Lyn Nell Hancock  Smithsonian Magazine September 2011

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by  Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan

Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn–and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Roberta Golinkoff, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Diane Eyer

The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally by David Elkind



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14 thoughts on “Education Week: Educating Too Early

  1. I must add that I am skeptical of statements like…’By age fifteen, students from the academic preschool program showed twice as much delinquent activity as the other two groups.’ It would seem there would be many more factors leading to delinquent activities in a 15 year old than just academic training at the pre-school age.

    Love the articles coming from GeekMom though.

  2. Very interesting – and in line with most of the research I have seen. Especially the idea that “learning in young children (and perhaps at all ages) has much more to do with curiosity and exploration. ”
    I am skeptical as well though, that an early academic program alone is a negative factor. It seems that the *pressure* kids receive at home and at school to learn *at a certain pace* would be a larger contributor to things like therapy.

    I also think that academic concepts can absolutely be presented in a way that encourages “curiosity and exploration”. Montessori is just one example of that.

    But I still enjoyed the article. 🙂

  3. These findings don’t surprise me that much. Children learn through play and exploration and when you take that away and have them sit at a desk all day….well think how boring that can be. This is why when your child is getting special services like speech or OT or PT, it looks like play. It is play and that is how little ones learn best. 🙂 Thanks for the info!

  4. Great article, I wished I had read this when my son was a preschooler. I’ve always maintained that the only purpose of preschool is to learn how to stand in line and how to play with other kids.

    1. I sent each of my four kids to a play-oriented preschool. They remember painting at big easels and playing with toys. I saw lots of structure and rules and papers done according to instruction, all specifically designed so these 3 and 4 year olds would better handle the demands of school. sigh

  5. We (New Zealand) are currently battling against a Minister of Education who is trying to bring in standardised testing for children as young as five and six in Reading and Maths.
    With our family’s personal choice to go with a Waldorf education – this policy is a direct hit on our curriculum which does actually value and nurture play in those early years. (And have teenagers in their final year of high-school achieving at first year university level!)
    Also, I have taught in the state system and seen so many wellbehaved achieving five and six year olds stop Reading and being interested in school at age nine or so because they are burnt out!
    Yay for play.

  6. I find many trying to push their kids because they think that they can make them gifted or smarter. When in reality kids that are gifted or high IQ learn things with out being pushed , With out the constant drills and flash cards. Young kids learn best from play and on their own.
    I am increasingly appalled at the number of preschools and parents that push classroom work for 2-4 yr olds.
    This is not going to “catch us up” with Japan.

      1. I think the biggest thing that “gets” me.
        Is ” your baby can read” . Many people are trying this so they can have a 3 yr old that reads Dickens. Well it’s not really reading it’s memorization. Teachers that I’ve talked to hate this system because when these kids get into kindergarten and 1st grade they have to be retaught to read. And it’s much harder to relearn something. And do you really want your toddler reading the magazine covers in the check out line? Warning labels read like instructions to young kids.

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