Enough is enough: let children be children

Education is the key to success. This is the mantra of business leaders, politicians and parents. More education means more opportunities for higher paying jobs. Higher income means more than simply having more things. It translates into improved quality of life through better health and nutrition. The evidence seems conclusive. College graduates earn more than high school graduates who earn more than high school dropouts.

The benefits of education seem so clear that conventional wisdom says when it comes to learning, the sooner the better. For decades, the primary focus has been kindergarten and preschool. Passing kindergarten requires children to be able to read and write. The pressure is on children and teachers. Preschool is essential to help children be successful in kindergarten. The federal Head Start program provides early learning opportunities for low-income children. Middle class families pay for quality preschool. Researchers from UC-Berkeley and Stanford University found that middle class children see modest gains, and poor children show strong gains in pre-reading and math skills. The evidence seems to support the conventional wisdom.

The pressure for academic success has pushed expectations onto childcare facilities. Across our country, an estimated 12 million children under 5 are in non-parental childcare each week. These facilities allow parents to return to work. Some do so out of economic necessity. Others do so for adult companionship. No matter the reasons, childcare facilities are no longer seen as simply babysitting services. These facilities are now expected to lay the foundation and serve as springboard for academic success.

Advocates are calling for free, mandatory preschool. England believes it has found a solution. The Childcare Act of 2006 requires all early learning and childcare facilities to implement compulsory programs with standardized educational goals for infants to four-year-olds. The goal is for all children, no matter what their family situation, to have the opportunity to begin learning the skills necessary for attaining the good life. While voters in California rejected publicly funded preschool in 2005, the recent study that placed California’s childcare centers in the 47th spot nationally raised alarms across the state.

We believe that schooling children early makes them smarter and lays the foundation for continued educational success. Since young children are seen as sponges waiting to soak up information, the focus of early childhood education has shifted away from play, snacks and naps to cognitive and language development.

Before California follows the lead of England, we need to ask—how young is too young?

The Berkeley-Stanford study discovered that any cognitive gain may come at the expense of social development. Specifically, childcare centers had a negative impact on children’s social development, self-control, interpersonal skills and motivation. These negative effects were worst for children who attended early learning centers before the age of 2 years.

Learning begins at birth. Children are naturally curious, seeking out new stimuli. But no matter how small and caring, most childcare centers regulate children’s behavior.
A Canadian study done by the C.D. Howe Institute connects the increased use of childcare to a decrease in the well-being of children. This study found children in care exhibited more anxiety and hyperactivity. This behavior is regulated as students learn appropriate behavior. This in turn impacts cognitive growth as children start to shut down when their behavior is regulated. When this happens, both social and cognitive development are hurt. There is a growing body of research that disputes the conventional wisdom of the earlier, the better.

If your goal of education is “school success” for your child and other children then the current system, with its emphasis on content standards in kindergarten and making preschool mandatory, is the way to go. However, if you want your child and other children to love learning and become critical thinkers, then we need to allow children to explore, discover, ask questions and get messy. We need to go back to the future where early childhood experiences are unencumbered, where children are children.

Early childhood education is seen as a panacea for social and economic problems. The decision to place children in childcare and early education programs is a difficult one. Each family has different needs and priorities. The emerging research cannot make this decision for parents, but it helps highlight the need for parents to think about and observe what their children are getting out of preschool and kindergarten, both cognitively and socially. It may help to remember what you did and what you liked as a little kid.

Scott Key is a professor in the Fresno Pacific University School of Education. Before coming to FPU, he was at the University of Illinois and a member of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago.