Children need play, but only up to a point

Preschool readiness has become an obsession in this country in the belief that it will reduce achievement gaps and improve our position in international education rankings (“To Really Learn, Our Children Need the Power of Play,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 10).  But it hasn’t worked.  Which is why reformers like to look to Finland, where letting children be children is thought to be responsible for the quality of its schools.

But Finland’s success is the result of a host of other factors that simply do not exist in the U.S.  Its culture and politics can’t be transferred.  Moreover, Finland is a small country that is racially homogeneous.  This is the opposite of the situation in the U.S.  Therefore, assuming that Finland’s philosophy about childhood play is the reason for its reputation is simplistic.

Allowing young people the freedom to do what they want was the basis for Summerhill School in Suffolk, England in the 1960 when it caught the fancy of reformers.  Educational theorists extolled the open style of Summerhill.  But children there soon began to ask their teachers for direction.  Further, by discarding old-fashioned lessons, Summerhill graduated students who knew little about the basics.

In an attempt to correct the faults of preschool readiness, we run the risk of swinging too far the other way.  Children need direction.  Turning schools into extended playgrounds will shortchange them in the long run.  Unfortunately, education in the U.S. goes from one extreme to the other.

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2 Replies to “Children need play, but only up to a point”

  1. “Preschool readiness” presumably refers to kids learning letters, numbers, reading and counting before they start kindergarten (or at least before they start first grade).

    I agree that emphasizing that kind of “preschool readiness” at the expense of traditional “play” is counterproductive — particularly for the kids whose cognitive skills/neural development are not sufficiently advanced to handle this kind of learning at this age.

    But, the more fundamental problem is ineffective parenting from birth through kindergarten, particularly in low-socio-economic-status (SES) families. In Finland, for several generations, there has been an unusual emphasis on birth-through-kindergarten well-being of children — that famous “box” given to each Finish parent at the birth of their child is the oft-cited example. But, I’m pretty sure Finland also has extensive high-quality preschools + a lot of leave arrangements that enable working parents to spend much more time with their young children than we do here in the US.

    My thesis is that the battle is mostly won or lost by the time a child starts kindergarten. If the child has adequate vocabulary, cognitive skills and neural development, the child will be able to do “grade level” academic work + will find academic work/school generally to be a positive experience + will flourish academically. If not, then the child will find academic work/school generally to be a difficult/frustrating experience + will likely give up on the academics + will turn to minor misbehavior to gain status/peer approval.

    There are some aspects of parenting that are different in low-SES families than in high-SES families. It’s those differences that are predisposing the low-SES kids to academic failure and predisposing the high-SES kids to academic success. Not 100%, of course. There are obviously some low-SES families that parent like high-SES families; the kids from these families will be predisposed to academic success. Charters skim these kids; the low-SES parents who parent like high-SES parents will also tend to be the low-income inner-city parents who are sufficiently concerned/functional to learn about the charters, successfully complete the applications, and provide the daily transportation required by the charters. (Back in the old days, inner-city schools tracked students so the children of the low-SES parents who parented like high-SES parents attended the neighborhood public school but, due to tracking, ended up in classes that were filled with other children whose parents were likewise parenting like high-SES parents.)

    As you note, Finland is much more homogeneous than the US. Today, Finland has a much smaller percentage of very-low-SES parents than the US has. This no doubt contributes to Finland’s educational success story.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: There’s no question that so much of a child’s academic potential is determined before the child enters school. But when attempts are made to help parents, they are attacked as racist or insensitive. I see little hope for improving matters because too many people are not suited to be parents. Finland is the total opposite of the U.S. in every way. We can study Finland all day long, but the lessons learned will not transfer here.

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