The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Erika Christakis (yep, the same woman at the center of the Yale Halloween controversy) has a piece for us in the current issue about how preschool kids are increasingly “working more but learning less.” A reader absorbs her core lessons:

Children don’t just magically become ready to learn reading skills because it’s the first of September closest to four years after their birth, yet somehow we’re trying to build a school system that assumes this. This is little short of abusive.

The Finnish teacher quoted at the end has it right: Read to children; converse with them; immerse them in language and narrative; and expose them to the reality that we have a symbolic mechanism for recording language without insisting that they master it. And by the time they are 5 or 6 or 7 or 8, they’ll be ready to read, and when that happens, for most, it will happen pretty easily and quickly.

Another reader makes a point not really addressed by Christakis:

My wife teaches preschool, and she fights this all the time. She says the parents are part of the problem; some of them ask for homework for their three and four year olds. She instead tells the parents to read to them and make sure the kids get lots of playtime.

More on playtime from “a board president of my kids’ coop preschool a few years back”:

I once naively suggested to the senior teacher that maybe we should have more academics—reading and math. I wanted my kids to have a head start in kindergarten. She said: “At this level, play IS academic.”

She explained that the adult attributes we call “character” are life skills acquired early, beginning in preschool. These include perseverance, determination, honesty, follow-through, self-respect, leadership, listening skills—even creativity and charisma. Kids with these skills, she said, have no problem with academics later.

This reader recommends a more specific school of thought:

“Two front teeth = ready to read” is the standard used in Waldorf Schools. There’s something to be said for it, because those schools do extensive reading to kids and get them to draw and discuss concepts (such as rhyming, plot, motivation, cause and effect, contextual clues, etc.—not just factual content). However, they do not explicitly teach students how to read until the end of first grade or the start of second grade. And almost all Waldorf students read and comprehend their reading above third grade level when tested in third grade.

The fact that a Waldorf teacher stays with a class from K to 3rd, or even K to 5th, means that teachers develop strong relationships and deep knowledge of their students. And that allows teachers to diagnose and provide or recommend tutoring or special interventions for those with print-based disabilities so that when their nervous system is sufficiently mature, they too will learn to read.

Another overview of Waldorf:

This reader went another direction:

I was homeschooled until I was seven, and I honestly think that it was one of the best choices my parents ever made. By the time I started school (third grade), I was enamored of learning. Our homeschool was always rather loosely structured, and I actually enjoyed many of my lessons so much that I would do more than was “assigned.”

I only spent a couple hours a day on formal lessons (and we skipped more than a few days, whenever the school district had a holiday or my mom wasn’t feeling up to it) and I had many hours to read and play with my siblings. Everyone in my family loved to read, so it was just natural for me to want to do it to.

Anyway, maybe some of that is just due to some innate level of nerdiness on my part, but I do think the lack of structure + encouragement of curiosity in my formative years was helpful. (On the other hand, I can’t cut or glue to save my life! Missing out on those kindergarten skills ...)

If you’re interested in more of Christakis’s work, she’s the author of the new book The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups.