Imagine being outside, mid-day, on a stiflingly hot and sunny late July day in Colorado. Now imagine spending the same time outside in the same hot weather, but this time you’re wearing snow boots, a down-puffer jacket, mittens, and a stocking hat. And imagine you weren’t really given a choice- this was actually expected behavior on your part. You’d be pretty miserable, right?
Before protesting, though- know that there is, in fact, a logic behind the winter gear in summer! Six months from now, it will be winter, and it will naturally be expected for you to dress appropriately for the weather and temperature. The logic follows that the best way to prepare for winter dressing requirements is to practice and prepare for it now, in summer, because it will be an eventual realistic expectation for you to follow.
Does that logic make any sense?
Most can agree that we’d all be much happier, more comfortable, and overall better off dressing for the weather TODAY and expecting to prepare to dress for cold weather when it is indeed and actually cold. Eventually.
Unfortunately, we often use similar faulty logic to backfill learning expectations for preschool and kindergarten children without regard to actual development! Rather than focus on child development from birth forward or from the bottom up, our culture and the educational system often apply a downward retrofit, essentially viewing children as miniature adults. Because someday children will become adults where they’ll be expected to sit still at a desk and work, our culture has generally adopted the mistaken belief that we should require children to imitate, or practice acting like adults, early and often.
Side note–we fully support more adults remembering how to play and imitate children because research supports that joyful, playful experiences are the quickest route to learning for humans of all ages!
Expectations for eventual needs are often pushed lower and lower through our national educational system, almost as if 5-year-olds were just miniature 5th graders or 15-year-olds. What this inappropriate expectation has created, in practice, is that kindergarten has become the “New First Grade,” and even more alarming, PreK has become the “New New First Grade.”
The logic has followed that elementary-aged children “should” be expected to sit still in chairs and desks, listen quietly, and be taught information that will be stored in their heads to recall at some point in life, which has led to a practice that even preschool age children as young as 3 years old are expected to sit still at a table, complete a worksheet, and passively receive information.
From a child development perspective, placing future expectations of adult behavior onto young children is as absurd as dressing for 15-degree weather when it is actually presently 95 degrees. Why would anyone do such a strange thing and expect positive results?
Here’s the thing: Humans enter the world as immature beings. We’re born with developing bodies, brains, and a sense of Self that takes time, experience, and the natural progression of physical maturation to fully develop! Nature never intended children to develop according to national or statewide standards for learning objectives stepped downward from K-12 institutionalized educational standards.
Learning is an Action-Verb
Children were designed by nature to learn experientially (via the body and senses) in an integrated fashion involving their entire beings- brains, hearts, bodies, and souls. Children learn not because someone else performs the active job of teaching them but because humans were designed to organically and naturally engage in the action-verb of learning through a smorgasbord of experiences and opportunities that lead to learning. This happens primarily and optimally through play-based whole-person learning experiences within the context of safe and secure attachment relationships.
Because of the vital impact of the first five years of brain development on all future learning, optimal preschool and kindergarten learning experiences must be rooted in foundational knowledge of brain-based child development. At Treehouse Learning, we believe that kindergarten firmly belongs within the context of quality early childhood educational experiences. This is despite the fact that our culture and education system are currently set up to absorb kindergarten (and even preschool and PreK programs) within the institutionalized structure and standards of the public school system. The impact of this is often expressed as inappropriate expectations for children based on physical, cognitive, and emotional maturation and development.
Rethinking Kindergarten and Preschool Learning Experiences
This discussion introduces an interesting question about preschool and kindergarten. Should these early childhood educational experiences ultimately be driven and guided by the developmental needs of children? Or by the externally-placed expectations around what school districts believe 12th graders should eventually know and do, re-worked downwards to apply to younger and younger learners, regardless of relevance or appropriateness.
When it is actually cold outside, our winter clothes are comfortable to wear because we’re ready to wear them!
The biggest differences between preschool and kindergarten are based on the increasing capabilities and capacities of developing children over time. Preschool-aged children need to play, as do kindergarten-age children. Children of all ages have a need to build skills that will eventually support them in growing into adult learners, but this happens incrementally and gradually. Through playful learning experiences, children engage the parts of their brain that support eventually being able to sit still at a table or hold a pencil and write (but it doesn’t happen through forcing young children to practice sitting still at age 3 or 5). They’ve got time!
With each onward march around the sun, children develop. This is based on each child’s temperament as well as the quality of the learning environment, experiences, and relationships. No two children develop at the same pace in all of the integrated, interconnected areas of child development either. While we can and should understand and support this process, we can ultimately also interfere in ways that damage the innate playful creativity and imagination necessary for optimal development by pushing inappropriate expectations too soon.
A child’s development occurs both separately and simultaneously across domains of learning. A preschool child may not yet have the fine motor skills or dexterity to tie their shoes independently that a kindergarten-age child might have. Fortunately, we usually avoid attempting to teach toddlers to tie their own shoes because we trust that this skill will arrive in time, and instead, we meet them where they are.
The differences between preschool and kindergarten, or at least what we believe based on optimal experiences for whole-child development, are rooted in differing age and maturity-based developmental factors driven by the needs of the child, not the expectations of a school district to be able to quantitatively measure and assess performance.
We can comfortably grasp this principle when it comes to physical factors, like the age of a child’s first tooth or how much hair they have at age 2. Some children have plenty, and some have virtually none! Child development encompasses physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual development, and we adults generally feel little pressure to push them to grow their teeth faster.
Yet, when it comes to preschool and kindergarten-aged children, we often have the mistaken belief that pushing them to look and act like small adults is appropriate or even something we should strive for! This, unfortunately, often happens at the expense of play-based experiential learning opportunities. Kindergarten is not first grade, and certainly, preschool should not be!
Development happens at the pace it happens at. It can’t be rushed, and there is no lifetime benefit for achieving a milestone earlier or later. Children who learn the alphabet at age 2 are no more or less likely to thrive as an adult than a child who learns it at age 5. Earlier is not better! Developmentally appropriate practices and expectations are better!
To leave with a few parting thoughts, consider this quote from Alfie Kohn, an expert on human behavior and advocate for childhood:
“Children, after all, are not just adults-in-the-making. They are people whose current needs and rights and experiences must be taken seriously.”
– Alfie Kohn
Additionally, check out this discussion on re-imagining preschool and kindergarten education programs, where extensive research ignites the question of whether we’d ultimately see “better test results” simply by letting children play.