American kindergartens are running the risk of producing rule-following robots instead of creative, free-thinking youngsters.
These institutions have become academic in nature, devoid of free play opportunities which promote emotional, social and cognitive development.
Small children are kept occupied with teacher-led academic learning activities for hours on end sometimes with little or no break for free play.
It’s important to understand this: free play is not a waste of time, it’s necessary for emotional and social development which is crucial for a well-adjusted life later as a teenager growing up and eventually as an adult.
Christopher Brown, Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in Early Childhood Education at the University of Texas at Austin, writes at The Conversation about his concerns that kindergarten children get too little time to play and why it matters.
“As part of my ongoing research, I have been conducting interviews with a range of kindergarten stakeholders – children, teachers, parents – about what they think kindergarten is and what it should be. During the interviews, I share a 23-minute film that I made last spring about a typical day in a public school kindergarten classroom,” writes Brown.
His film is disturbing. After all, we are talking about little five-year-olds!
Browns says the classroom he filmed had 22 kindergartners and one teacher. They were together for almost the entire school day. During that time, they engaged in about 15 different academic activities. Recess was only 15 minutes and that came at the end of the day!
For children between the ages of five and six, this is a tremendous amount of work, but teachers are under pressure to cover the material.
In an interview, the teacher admitted that it was a lot of work for children of that age, but that she and the children were under pressure to perform at a higher level academically.
But it’s Brown’s discussion with the children that was most revealing: what were they learning, he asked.
The children told Brown that 1) they were learning to follow rules and 2) they were learning for the sake of getting to the next grade and eventually to find a job. In other words, they didn’t learn anything for the sake of learning, or by self-discovery as one does through play.
All of the children expressed a wish for more playtime.
This is not about feeling sorry for little children who have to sit still and work all day long at their desks like some miniature scholars.
No, it’s about depriving human beings of the joy of childhood, and the joy of discovery.
When will they ever be carefree again, just able to run around, climb things and fall down other things, digging in mud and trying in vain to let things grow?
After all, running around getting filthy with friends around you teaches you so much. It teaches you what clean desks, books, and a teacher can never teach you: how to be yourself amongst your peers.
Research has consistently shown classrooms that offer children the opportunities to engage in play-based and child-centered learning activities help children grow academically, socially and emotionally, says Brown.
Research adds academic strength to the argument, but actually, it’s just common sense.
A nation who knows this and who exemplifies it by excellent academic grades is Finland. Finland’s national education system has been receiving praise in the media in recent years because Finnish students have been achieving some of the highest test scores in the world.
In Finland, children start kindergarten—or what Finns call “preschool”—at age 6 and they spend most of their day at school playing, reports Timothy Walker for The Atlantic. He’s an American teacher based in Finland.
He tells of a day he visited a local Finnish pre-school and watched little boys dragging spades through the mud. When he asked them what they were doing, they said, “Building dams.”
Anni-Kaisa Osei Ntiamoah, one of the preschool teachers, hit the nail on the head when she told Brown: “[Children] learn so well through play, they don’t even realize that they are learning because they’re so interested [in what they’re doing].”
Isn’t that the point? You remember what you learn through joyful, free discovery.
What do you learn by learning the rules? To follow the rules, of course. Just like a little robot who can’t think for itself.