Let Them Play

Posted on Feb 19, 2010 in Featured, Learning | 10 comments

This is Part VI of the series Kindergarten Considerations in which I have been discussing (and wrestling with) the considerations behind the seemingly innocuous decision of where to send my four year old son to school. I had promised to share my thoughts on our options in this post but I got totally distracted by the idea that maybe school isn’t necessary at all.

Rain can’t recite the whole alphabet; it still gets a bit jumbled and he doesn’t yet recognize all of the letters. He can recite to 10 when he feels like it and when he tries he can reliably count objects in groups up to 4 or 5. He doesn’t write his name. He wrote the letter R on the back of his Valentines but often elaborated by adding wheels, arms or flowers. I am totally fine with that.

Here’s the deal. I have complete confidence in my kids’ abilities. They both demonstrate to me every day that they are very bright. I don’t care what age they learn to write their name or say the alphabet or count or read. I know with 100% certainty that they will do it and at their own pace. There will be plenty of time in the coming years for them to focus on academics and I don’t believe that they will be at a disadvantage from learning to read at 7 instead of 4 for instance.

In fact, a recent study from New Zealand has proven that very thing. By age 11, there was no difference between kids who learned to read at 7 and those who learned at 4.

“One theory for the finding that an earlier beginning does not lead to a later advantage is that the most important early factors for later reading achievement, for most children, are language and learning experiences that are gained without formal reading instruction,” says Dr Suggate.

“Because later starters at reading are still learning through play, language, and interactions with adults, their long-term learning is not disadvantaged. Instead, these activities prepare the soil well for later development of reading.”

“This research then raises the question; if there aren’t advantages to learning to read from the age of five, could there be disadvantages to starting teaching children to read earlier (at age 5). In other words, we could be putting them off,” he says.

The above passage makes several striking observations in only a few short sentences. First, that the most important factors for later literacy are “early language and learning, while de-emphasising the importance of early reading.” Second, that play is vital for early learning. Third, it raises the question of what harm we could be doing by teaching reading too early. I have heard elsewhere that teaching reading before 11 for instance, shapes our brains in a linear order and can hamper our abilities to think laterally. These three observations alone are reason enough for me to feel relaxed about Rain’s academic career.

We’ve got time for Rain to be a kid. We can focus on formal reading instruction in a couple of years. There are so few years in life when we are truly free of pressures, truly free to play. I want him to play, partly because it’s fun and partly because he is learning even while he plays. He is learning about respect,  gravity, problem solving, shapes, empathy, conservancy, conflict resolution, following instructions, developing hand-eye coordination and fine-motor skills, and more all day, just by playing and experimenting.

Interestingly, educators are starting to chime in about the importance of play. Last year,  the Alliance for Childhood published a report, Crisis in the Kindergarten, about the lack of play in Kindergarten in the US. This report explained that there was too much instruction, too much testing, too much homework and not enough child-directed play. A New York Times article on the Crisis in the Kindergarten report discussed the lack of play in classrooms and also touched on some thoughts on creativity that are similar to those of Sir Ken Robinson.

Thinkers like Daniel Pink have proposed that this country’s continued viability hinges on what is known as the “imagination economy”: qualities like versatility, creativity, vision — and playfulness — that cannot be outsourced. It’s a compelling argument to apply here, though a bit disheartening too: must we append the word “economy” to everything to legitimize it? Isn’t cultivating imagination an inherent good? I would hate to see children’s creativity subject to the same parental anxiety that has stoked the sales of Baby Einstein DVDs.

I am cheered on by this realization that play is important. The Alliance for Childhood’s report is a wonderful step in the right direction but as the above passage points out, not all educators will sincerely embrace play. Sometimes, it feels like educators are stressing play because it’s been recognized as important, and therefore, another way to make kids excel. It doesn’t often feel like they are interested in letting kids play, just for the sake of playing, just for fun, but rather because it’s learning in disguise.

For an example closer to home, the BC government is in the process of instituting Full Day Kindergarten without having asked parents for their input. The BC Ministry of Education has a brochure about the benefits of Full Day Kindergarten and it repeatedly touts the benefits of their play-based curriculum. I’m not sure that the word play and the word curriculum belong together. I’ll admit that I’m already biased against Full Day Kindergarten but the brochure upholding the word play rings false to me.

Mothering Magazine’s January-February 2010 issue reported that a 2009 British report by the Cambridge Primary Review has concluded that formal schooling should be delayed to age 6. We have increasing evidence that formal schooling should be delayed, that emphasizing academic performance too early is creating unnecessary pressure on our children, and yet, the BC government has decided to lengthen the school day for 4 and 5 year olds, under the guise of a play-based curriculum.

I believe this is wrong. Four and five year olds do not belong in schools for six hours a day regardless of the curriculum. They should be climbing trees. They should be drawing with sidewalk chalk. They should be playing hopscotch. They should be colouring. They should be in the care of someone to whom they are attached, a parent, family member, maybe a daycare operator. They should have time to rest, time to be with other children and time to be alone.

The most oft-cited benefit for Full Day Kindergarten I have heard, even from a school principal, is that it is more convenient for the parents to not have to pick up the children after only a half day. This seems to me so representative of our culture, a culture that wants our children to conform to our adult sleep and work schedules by force. An absolutely lovely teacher at Rain’s preschool further suggested to me that the BC government is using Full Day Kindergarten to address the severe lack of daycare spots in the province. These are not reasons to put young children in school full time. I am not fooled for a minute by the brochure about play.

Rain was an early talker and had/has an amazing vocabulary. We read a lot of books, he asks a lot of questions and he’s a prolific story teller. He will learn to read and write. He will learn math. I am in no rush. I am not worried in the slightest. Right now, I want him to learn to follow his interests and I want to let him be a kid. I want to find a school that will be ok with that.


  1. Yes, yes yes! I’m with you on the full day Kindergarden nonsense. I actually attended a meeting about it for child care providers and I was heartened to see that most of the ECE’s were on my side, but the parents were not. I thought exactly what you said – that it’s all about conforming the children to meet the needs of the adults. There’s a good reason it’s been half day for kindergarden all this time people! But the administrators are worried about kids falling behind academically now. They want to replace free play with homework. It makes me feel ill. When I registered my daughter for kindergarden last year (we also live in BC) the secretary asked me if full day kindy went through (as it was on the table to do so) would I be for or against that. I immediately said “against” and she was shocked. She told me I was the only parent out of the 23 who had already registered who said that. I knew of other parents who were against it too, but they would all be homeschooling. The mainstream parents who put their kids in school didn’t seem to give it any more thought than it being convenient. And I get that part. A friend who is an ECE admitted to me recently that she was all for full day kindergarden because she felt that the kids of low income parents who couldn’t stay at home or afford good, quality daycare would benefit from a more enriching environment. But for the other parents, I wish we could at least be given a choice. It’s so frustrating.
    .-= Melodie´s last blog ..How and Why I Became Vegetarian =-.
    Twitter: bfmom

    • That’s interesting about the other parents’ reactions. I have found that here it seems like most parents are reserved about it. They seem concerned but resigned to the Full Day Kindy. I think in the mainstream population there is a tendency to believe that if the Ministry of Education has decided to go ahead with something, it must be what’s right for kids. I get the feeling that they are kind of going against their own parenting instinct which is to be worried about it.

      • I wish more parents knew that Kindergarten is (and always has been) OPTIONAL! As a (former) K teacher and mom of 2, I am very much against full day K, but find that most parents I have encountered are very much for it. Many parents are concerned about their kids “falling behind” and even ask for homework! In Kindergarten! I say, sure, your child’s homework is to play with you, help you do some baking now and then, listen to you read stories and to spend lots of time outdoors!

  2. I totally exhaled when I read the sentence about the New Zealand study. My daughter is 5 now, and she can’t name all of her letters. She makes Es with like 7 crossbars, and draws her Ps like lollipops. Which is OK with me. But I will admit, when I see a child a full year younger than her reading words from a book she’s never seen before, it twinges something in me. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but I don’t want my kid to be left behind. It relieves me to know that she won’t be. I haven’t been pushing my daughter or correcting her, so I will just continue not to with renewed confidence.

    As for ‘play curriculum’, they use that phrase at my daughter’s preschool. Curriculum is just teacher shorthand for ‘what we do all day’, I think. Her preschool sets out many activities, and the children choose freely and move between them. They have monthly themes that the kids choose – winter, pets, ocean creatures – and they decorate and set up theme-related stations, but it’s not restrictive. I like it. The school is better equipped than I am with a variety of toys and craft supplies and so on, and I know that my daughter isn’t being pushed into one thing or another. It IS possible to do ‘play curriculum’, but have some doubts about how it would be handled in a public school setting where some parents may push for more ‘academics’.

    Finally (sorry for the essay), the other big argument I’ve heard for all-day kindergarten is to help disadvantaged kids. This is something I’m sort of torn on. Not all kids get chances to pursue age-appropriate activities at home. My kids do. The truth is, my kids are probably going to be OK no matter what, but other kids might not be. They might actually benefit from being in 6 hours of ‘play-oriented activities’ instead of in front of a TV. So how, as a society, do we balance the various needs? I don’t really know, and I think that any school with one teacher and more than 10 students is not well-suited to catering to individual students, hence the one size fits all.
    .-= Amber´s last blog ..Treasure Hunting =-.
    Twitter: AmberStrocel

    • I was just being cheeky about the play curriculum. Rain’s preschool is like your daughter’s and I chose it specifically because of that. In fact, I didn’t want pre-school in the sense of getting academically ready for school. I just wanted a place where he could go and play with other kids regularly and I could have some time with my new baby. I agree, I think play curriculum IS possible but I fear that it won’t always be implemented in the real spirit of play…I fear it will become heavy on the curriculum side.
      I know what you mean about feeling like your child is behind. I sometimes feel, as you do, that I am neglecting my parental duties or that Rain is getting a bum deal or something. Thankfully, I’m getting more and more sure about how I feel about kids learning so those moments of doubt are becoming increasingly brief. I have also had the benefit of observing later readers catching up quickly to their peers (my sister’s kids and other homeschoolers). I used to think it was horrendous if a child couldn’t yet read at 6 but I’ve completely changed my mind on that.
      Finally, yes, I’ve heard this argument about disadvantaged kids too and I understand that point. But like you say, I don’t know how to balance all the needs. Clearly we don’t want an even greater divide between haves and have-nots. But I also don’t think that they are really instituting Full Day Kindy province wide only to catch the disadvantaged kids. I think there are other political reasons behind it. So yes I feel torn on that point too.

    • Yes, full day kindy is such a ludicrous idea that it must definitely be economy-driven. Of course the government would want care-givers to get back at being taxpayers earlier, even at the expense of the health of our children. I hadn’t heard about the lack of daycare spots also being a driving factor, but that makes such total sense! It just makes me steam.

      I would like to comment on the discussion of all-day kindergarten and “disadvantaged” kids. In regards to to this discussion, I would define “disadvantaged” children as those whose homes are less safe places for them to be than school.

      I lean to the belief that being safe at home or at a mediocre daycare watching (and enjoying and learning from) TV all day / having freedom to simply play in an unstructured and unjudged way is more beneficial for a five or six year old than being in a classroom for a full day, getting an early introduction to a system where there is pressure to conform, excel, impress and fit in.

      Of course, there are kindergartens that are much better than is typical (rare) and, of course, there are homes that are not safe places to be.

  3. I am completely with you on the whole full day kindergarten thing to. I don’t understand why they would ever think that it could be good. Learning through play and outdoor time is so important in my opinion when they are that young and putting them in extended class time can’t be a good fit for the kindy crew 🙁 Of course I’m slightly biased being a homeschooler *grin*.

    There is a ton of debate on when your child should or shouldn’t read and I’ve taught 2 of my 3 children to read so far and gone both ways. When my son was 5 he could read proficiently all by himself and I’ll admit I pushed him to excel in everything. In retrospect I would have gone easier & not expected so much from him but you know, first born, mama’s little prodigy! I’m taking the complete opposite course of action with my daughter. She’s going to be 7 in a few months and we have just finished mastering the alphabet and she’s reading the beginner books with minimal trouble. I let her lead me and show me when she was ready to read. She started to actively ask what the words said and started to point out letter sounds to me and that was my cue that she was ready. You know what, it’s so much easier this time around for me! She’s ready and it’s coming to her so quickly unlike teaching a pre kindergartner. It’s her time and I’m so happy that I waited until she was ready. My youngest just turned 4 and we’re going to read like stink and watch for his cues to lead us on his learning journey *grin*.

    Sounds like you’ve got a really great philosophy on what you want for your son going on so that will lead you to what will fit his needs 🙂
    .-= Rosina aka Rosy_Posy´s last blog ..Fabric Giveaway ~ So St. Croix =-.
    Twitter: Rosy_Posy

    • Thanks Rosina.
      My sister has 4 kids who are quite a bit older than mine so I’ve been able to watch her homeschooling journey and I’ve come full circle on my thoughts on reading over the years. I’m really glad that I had that opportunity because otherwise I think the social pressure to push children to read early and excel or get left behind would have me approaching Rain’s schooling completely differently than I am now.

    • I have heard discussion among unschoolers with children who learned to read “late”, that they have witnessed their children develop other skills like observation and listening, for examples, in order to help them make sense of a world which relies heavily on the written word. A child who cannot yet read an instruction sheet on how to assemble a toy will need to find other ways to figure out how and where the parts of the toy fit together; a child who cannot immediately know that a certain shop is a bakery by reading its sign must seek out other clues that are accessible through senses and observation.

      It is a fascinating idea to me and makes absolute sense that there is great potential for many other kinds of growth and learning when reading is not yet an option. Perhaps it might also be true that learning to read at a later age may be quite beneficial because it allows a child to develop other ways of understanding the world.

      I am excited to see how my young child will develop his reading skills. I will continue to surround him with words and am excited to watch him learn to read when and how he needs. I am so grateful for the experience of homeschoolers before me and for their stories, insight and wisdom!

  4. Hi. I really enjoyed reading this blog. My son goes to K in August, and I was stressing out tonight. He is bright. But he can’t always seem to do what others can do. Like write his name. He can write it..in big letters (all caps) and count to ten. I try to “work” with him but I don’t want to push him or make him resent learning or school work before he even gets there! I just worry though. I don’t want him to “fail” because I “failed”. He did not go to preschool due to finances in the home, and a new baby sister. I just know that all kids progess at their level and when they are ready. He does not read, yet has memorized several books. Page by page he knows what each page says! But again I just got worried. And some how I stumbled on this page and it has helped calm me.


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