Kindergarten: Should We Delay It for All?

“My son is gifted at creative play – you should see the forts he builds in our living room!” When is the last time you heard a parent brag about his child’s play habits? Instead, here in America, parents emphasize early reading skills or mastery of math facts. We’ve been conditioned to value scholastic achievement, the sooner the better. We assume that if children are early academics, then they will go far in life, perhaps even become the next Doogie Howser, M.D.

In fact, there is no research to support this assumption. The dramatically increased academic emphasis in American kindergartens may actually have negative consequences for children, as I’ve written about in the past. There is no evidence that children who are early readers have any advantage over their peers, either in the short or long term.

The term kindergarten, which literally means “children’s garden,” was coined in 1840 by German educator Friedrich Frobel. When Elizabeth Peabody started the first American kindergarten in 1868, she explained the teacher’s job: “How does the gardener treat his plants? He studies their individual natures, and puts them into such circumstances of soil and atmosphere as enable them to grow, flourish, and bring forth fruit.”

What kind of an environment encourages young children to grow and flourish? We know the answer to that question: children learn through play, in a space that nurtures their natural curiosity, allows them to freely explore and interact with one another and with their environment, and gives them reassurance and support when needed.

In Finland and many other developed countries, formal schooling (i.e., children sitting at desks and doing pencil and paper tasks for large portions of the day) does not begin until age 7. As described in the Atlantic, Finnish children begin kindergarten at age 6, and their days are largely spent playing, both outdoors and indoors. Children are allowed to determine their own pursuits, learning to read only when they are “willing and interested.”

This month, researchers released a paper touting the benefits of delaying the start of school until age 7. Students in Denmark who started kindergarten a year later – at age 7 rather than age 6 – were far less likely to display inattentiveness and hyperactivity, not only in kindergarten, but for the next several years.

Stanford professor Thomas Dee stated, “We found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent for an average child at age 11 and it virtually eliminated the probability that an average child at that age would have an ‘abnormal,’ or higher-than-normal rating for the inattentive-hyperactive behavioral measure.”

In the United States today, over 9.5% of all children ages 3 – 17, or almost 6 million children, are diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If the Stanford/Danish study above is any indication, perhaps this increase in ADHD symptoms and diagnoses is due to the fact that we have unrealistic expectations for very young children. If our children were primarily learning through free play until age 7, we might greatly reduce the incidence of ADHD in this country.

In recent years, many parents have chosen to delay sending their child to kindergarten for another year, a practice called “academic redshirting.” The idea is to give children (often boys) another year to mature, especially emotionally and intellectually. The percentage of families choosing this option varies greatly, from 2% in low-income areas to up to 27% in some wealthier areas.

There are two problems with this trend: one is that it results in kindergarten classes with an age range of up to 18 months (from a child who has just turned 5 to a child who is turning 7 in a few months). The other is that this delay is only an option for those parents who either have the ability to stay home with their children or to enroll them in a paid preschool or childcare program.

Enrolling children in formal schooling before they are ready doesn’t accelerate their learning; rather, there is abundant evidence that giving children “the gift of time” by allowing them to learn through play will help them to be more successful. If we must send children to school at age five, then kindergarten should be an enriching, nurturing environment where kids build knowledge, large and fine motor skills, and social-emotional skills through play.

If our preschools and kindergartens were all play-based – with opportunities to role-play, pretend, create art and music, engage in building and experiments, and read and write for authentic purposes – then our children would not only learn, but also thrive.

And who would argue with that?

This post also appeared at GoLocalProv.

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