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No Pain, No Gain: Are Kindergartners Pushed Too Hard?

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When I read “Kindergarten Cram,” a New York Times op-ed by Peggy Orenstein, I completely empathized with the author’s plight. Orenstein laments how hard it was for her to find a kindergarten class for her child that allowed creative play and didn’t emphasize daily homework. 


When I lived in London and was visiting prospective schools for my then-four-year-old son, I was a bit shocked by the options. In England, children are pushed into full-time school a year earlier than they are in the States—at age four. To make matters worse, kindergarten in London, which is called “reception year,” is quite bleak. Four-year-olds turning five that school year are often expecting to wear a coat and tie and sit at desks all day, with little time free for play. 


I remember touring one of the “best” boys’ schools in England and seeing little boys donning beanies and wool suits with ties. One of the mums, who was upset about the “toughness” of reception year, told me later on the playground that her son was sent home if he couldn’t retie his tie when he was getting dressed after PE. And, sadly, PE happened only once a week. Nor was there daily recess—just loads of daily homework. Well, that just wouldn’t do for my ants-in-his-pants little boy, who loved his preschool in Atlanta, which revolved around creative play and choices. So I chose to pay an ungodly sum of money to enroll him in an international school that emphasized creative play–based learning and had three recesses a day, art and music twice a week, and very little homework. 


Why would I do that? Because four- and five-year-old children should not be pushed that hard. I recall my kindergarten days with fondness. I wasn’t expected to be a proficient reader or to know my addition and subtraction well. I learned to read and write and do basic math in first grade, at the age of six. Kindergarten was all about making mud pies, running a storefront, playing dress-up, and painting with my best friend. And while all of that is still fun, experts have now determined that play is actually crucial for young minds that are still developing emotionally, psychologically, and socially. 


For more insight into the matter, I interviewed the headmaster of the Children’s Day School in San Francisco, Rick Ackerly, who has been a headmaster since 1967 (at CDS and three other schools) and holds an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Ackerly believes America is hurting its children by putting too much academic pressure on them in their early years. “In general, even in some private schools, it has become an American [habit to push children academically]. The motto now is, how can we do it faster? … But when kids play, they are problem solving all the time. Play strengthens the ability to solve algebra problems later. It engages the whole organism,” Ackerly explains. 


Ackerly also suggests that most schools, in their efforts to achieve high standardized-test scores, often miss opportunities to engage a child’s curiosity. Think about it: If five-year-old kids are pushed into rote work—spelling, writing, math problems, reading—and they find it difficult, they may feel that they aren’t smart and they likely won’t enjoy school. On the other hand, if at five they are offered the chance to play games that introduce math concepts, are allowed to “write” stories about their favorite characters and attend fun story hours at the library, and have no daily homework, they will enjoy school and not be intimidated or begin to lose self-confidence. 


Not only are many kindergartners not allowed daily recess in the United States anymore, but they also are given so much homework that they rarely have time to play at home, either. (My friend Julie Warner Miccichi wrote a compelling article, entitled “Losing Recess,” about her son’s experience with this trend.) These circumstances are so difficult that many parents in my parenting group in Los Angeles wrote distraught emails to each other about how damaging the daily load was to their children’s self-esteem.


“My daughter in kindergarten has two to three pages a night, plus [a weekly assignment]—which usually is to make a book with pictures and sentences of four to eight words—plus usually one other assignment. She also has a spelling test once a week, and if they do not get all the words right, they write it again. There is also no slacking on homework, and she is panicked every night until it is finished,” one mom said. Another mom wrote that her child’s school had to reduce PE to once a week in order to better prepare for the homework worksheets. 


Trying to make schooling more fun for our kindergartners is quite difficult in this day and age, given that our current system seems cemented in place. And the main dilemma is that if you enroll your child in a private kindergarten that allows him or her to do more play-based learning, but you can’t afford a private elementary school later, your child will likely be deemed “behind” once he or she enters the public-school system. 


I speak from firsthand experience. We moved back to the States from London in the summer of 2009. As we tried to enroll our son at one of the best public elementary schools in the country, he was “tested” for first grade and I was told that he was behind because his penmanship wasn’t good and his math was inadequate. I was furious, as my son is amazing at math concepts and has been playing Monopoly, memorizing the game board’s rents and making perfect change, since he was four. His school in London, however, didn’t believe in pushing a child, so he hadn’t learned all his letters or math symbols—they were like a different language. 


This year has been a tough adjustment, but my smart cookie is now head of his class, with near perfect math and spelling scores and above-average reading skills. (His penmanship is still bad, but really, is that the end of the world?) Am I bragging? Not really—I know I’m lucky. Had William been a slow reader who, like me, wasn’t good at math, I’m sure he would have internalized that principal’s message that he was “behind” and felt really bad about himself. He wasn’t behind; he just enjoyed a kindergarten experience like the one I had. 


Sadly, even though we’re “caught up” now, my son no longer loves school. He also rarely plays creatively anymore and hasn’t “written” a story about his favorite superheroes in over a year. To some parents, that might not matter, but it does to me. 


For more reading on the subject, consult these resources: 


“A Child’s Genius: From the Principal’s Office,” by Rick Ackerly
“I Hate My Kindergartener’s Homework,” by Brooke Wirtschafter
The Case Against Homework, by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish
Einstein Never Used Flashcards, by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD

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