Start schooling later to give preschoolers a real head start

start later to give kids a head start

Everywhere I look, parents are obsessed with giving their littles a ‘head start’ in school. The idea is that if they start early, they will be ahead later.

This is only true with cars, horses, and greyhounds. Kids who start formal schooling at an early age and begin to excel tend to level out in first grade and the advantage is lost by third grade. There are many factors that could cause this loss of momentum, from a lack of follow-through at home to being in age-graded classrooms. Students are seldom allowed to progress at their own pace in traditional schools, so any benefits of being ‘ahead’ are obviously going to be diminished as time passes. A couple of decades and millions of dollars later, educrats are claiming that they need more time and money, and eventually they will prove Head Start programs to be successful.

I guess it’s just Too Bad for all the kids who fell through the last 30 year’s worth of public education cracks.

But wait - homeschooling children can progress at their own pace - so should homeschoolers start with flashcards and reading programs as soon as potty training is over? Or hey- how about the minute they open their eyes? Get out the sheet music and violins now, before it's too late!

This mad dash for academic advantage assumes, however, that formal or traditional teaching methods - workbooks, memorization, flashcards, etc… all very nose-to-the-grindstone - are the best foundation for future learning.

There is far too much evidence to the contrary.

Children are naturally curious, and when they are free to explore and imagine, they learn about the world in a way they find enjoyable. They make a connection between learning and pleasure. This connection is invaluable, and will affect their attitudes towards all future learning. 

In other words, we need to allow kids to play.

The American Journal of Play did an interview with psychologist Peter Gray, and he defined play very neatly: 

Play, as I define it and as many other play theorists tend to define it, is, first and foremost, self-chosen and self-directed. Players choose freely whether or not to play, make and change the rules as they go along, and are always free to quit. Second, play is intrinsically motivated; that is, it is done for its own sake, not for external rewards such as trophies, improved résumés, or praise from parents or other adults. Third, play is guided by mental rules (which provide structure to the activity), but the rules always leave room for creativity. Fourth, play is imaginative; that is, it is seen by the players as in some sense not real, separate from the serious world. And last, play is conducted in an alert, active, but relatively unstressed frame of mind.

I should add that play is not an all-or-none phenomenon. An activity can be more or less playful; but to the degree that an activity has all of these elements, we are all likely to identify it fully as play.

We bring many ideas to our homeschool from our own school experiences, and most of them are NOT good. Traditional schooling methods teach kids that learning is about earning grades, not acquiring and applying knowledge. Add academic competitions, report cards, test scores, and bragging parents into the mix, and you’ve got kids who think success in school is Survival of the Fittest. We expect children to share and cooperate, but we tend to create environments where their achievements are only recognized if they ‘beat’ others.

This competitive attitude is evident in homeschool parents who constantly compare their children to others, overschedule extracurricular activities, and push their kids to be extraordinary in some way when they are barely out of diapers. Are parents doing this for the child, or for themselves?

We need to give creative play its due. Creativity is essential to problem solving, discernment, and critical thinking, but when children are constantly scheduled, monitored, evaluated, and bound to lesson plans, they do not develop these important skills. We think of ‘play’ as a waste of time, and equate it with laziness and a lack of discipline. But think of the last action adventure movie or television show you enjoyed - what was one of the main characteristics of the hero that resulted in him foiling the Bad Guy and saving the day? Creativity.

MacGyver, we love you.

High pressure methods are the enemy of learning. Are you more productive and accurate when you are stressed and anxious, or when you are happy and engaged in something you find pleasurable?

Here are some quotes from people whose intelligence and creativity we as a society respect and admire - what did they have to say about formal schooling?

  • Plato - Knowledge that is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.
  • Mark Twain - I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. and - In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made school boards.
  • Winston Churchill - How I hated schools, and what a life of anxiety I lived there. I counted the hours to the end of every term, when I should return home.
  • George Bernard Shaw - What we call education and culture is for the most part nothing but the substitution of reading for experience, of literature for life, of the obsolete fictitious for the contemporary real.
  • Thomas Edison - I remember that I was never able to get along at school. I was at the foot of the class. 
  • Henry David Thoreau - What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.
  • Bertrand Russell - Men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education. andEducation is one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought.
  • Norman Douglas - Education is a state-controlled manufactory of echoes. 
  • Robert Frost - Education is hanging around until you've caught on.
  • Gilbert K. Chesterton - Education is the period during which you are being instructed by somebody you do not know, about something you do not want to know. 
  • Helen Beatrix Potter - Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality. 
  • Margaret Mead - My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school.
  • William Hazlitt - Anyone who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical education, and is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having had a very narrow escape.
  •  Laurence J. Peter - Education is a method whereby one acquires a higher grade of prejudices.
  • Anne Sullivan - I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built up on the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think. 
  • Edward M. Forster - Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.

Are you ready to step away from the flashcards and workbooks now, nice and slow?

The best schooling takes place when you read, play, communicate with and listen to your children, and then for cryin’ out loud - leave them alone and let them learn.