When Dianne Knowlton chose not to send her five-year-old son, Andrew, to a kindergarten near their home in Victoria, B.C., last month, it was partly because the highly structured program included teaching children how to read. Knowlton believes that imposing formal skills on children when they are too young can damage their ability to learn. Many child psychologists and educators now share that view and warn that Canadian kindergartens must place less emphasis on the desk work, testing and drills that became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Otherwise, the crucial kindergarten year could establish a lifetime pattern of failure.
Andrew Knowlton now travels six kilometres every day to a play-oriented kindergarten class at another school. Said his mother: “The problem is too much too soon. If he feels pushed when he is 5, he is not going to enjoy school.” Knowlton’s view, however, is at odds with a growing trend by some parents to encourage their preschool children to be early academic achievers—superkids. Said Otto Weininger, a professor of applied psychology and chairman of the early childhood program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education: “Parents, in their zeal to have their children acquire skills, have been sold an erroneous bill of goods.” Many experts now oppose kindergarten teaching that includes pressure to achieve and the subsequent possibility of failure. They blame overambitious parents who want to give their children a head start in education for exerting pressure on school boards. According to Margie Mayfield, a University of Victoria professor of early childhood education who chaired a 1981 B.C. government study on kindergarten needs, the concern is greatest from parents who watched their children play all through preschool and are anxious for academic progress. Indeed, there are now a growing number of private pre-kindergartens across Canada that specialize in reading drills and French-language training for children as young as 2, and many parents report that their children thrive in these classrooms.“We are feeling the superbaby push,” confirmed Diana Tomlinson, executive assistant of the Federation of Women Teacher’s Association of Ontario. “Parents are telling teachers, T want to see paperwork and homework.’ ”
Mayfield contends that kindergarten teachers must now educate not only children but also parents who are confused about the notion of learning through play. In British Columbia a new draft kindergarten curriculum recommends ways in which parents can
take part in a proposed play-oriented program. The curriculum, which is based on Mayfield’s report and is now awaiting ministerial approval, recommends that teachers use photographs, tape recordings and videotapes of children at play to demonstrate to parents that learning takes place.
Research studies dating back to 1932 document the potential for damage. But studies such as the 1975 book Better Late Than Early by Michigan educators Raymond and Dorothy Moore detail the most dramatic findings. The Moores
suggest that harm to children’s visual and auditory systems can result from premature reading and arithmetic work. And, according to Andrew Biemiller, a child psychologist at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Child Study, children are not biologically ready to assume the kind of pencil and paper work that may be assigned in kindergartens which offer watered-down Grade 1 programs. A hard-hitting Ontario government task force report prepared for the ministry of education last January said that standardized tests
and prepackaged programs offered by some provincial school boards are not only “inappropriate and restrictive” but “potentially harmful to young children.” The report also warned that some teachers subject children to tests on color identification, language development and numerical knowledge before they feel secure in the school environment. According to Weininger, a sense of security and a desire to learn are the keys to a child’s ability to make use of information. He claims that people teaching kindergarten children how
to read often give too many instructions at once. The children tend to remember only the first and last steps and feel that they have failed. And inappropriate learning methods cannot be corrected later, according to Chicago-based U.S. educator Benjamin Bloom. His research indicates that children develop 80 per cent of their mature intelligence by the age of 8.
The idea of learning through play is not new. Friedrich Froebel, an early19th-century German educator, praised play as the highest phase of human development in childhood, while the influential Italian educator Maria Montessori enshrined the concept in her child-centred schools in the first decade of this century. Today, most educators accept the idea that children engage in different levels of vital play which correspond to different stages of intellectual growth. Said John Moffatt, an education consultant for the Alberta ministry of education’s early childhood services: “When neurological pathways are not grown, then learning through the senses and the opportunity to talk about what is happening is more natural.”
Educators stress, however, that playoriented learning is not a licence for uncontrolled play and that kindergarten teachers are not being asked to be babysitters. Otto Weininger, for one, said that his classrooms operate along a distinct “play curriculum” in which play projects pose problems and lead to specific goals. Teachers who have studied techniques of early childhood education are in short supply in some provinces. Only Alberta and Quebec demand that kindergarten teachers obtain ECE diplomas before they can accept a teaching position. A 1983 study by the Manitoba Teachers’ Society found that half of all kindergarten teachers in the province lacked early childhood training and that nearly half of all elementary school principals had taken no academic courses relating to early childhood education. In Ontario teacher surpluses caused by declining enrolments have aggravated the problem. According to the ministry’s study, teachers with seniority—often with only high school teaching experience— frequently bump more highly qualified ECE teachers from kindergarten posts.
Even worse, according to British Columbia’s Mayfield, increasing provincial education cutbacks may jeopardize kindergarten reform. When applying cutbacks last year, school trustees in some areas of British Columbia suggested that kindergartens should be eliminated altogether. With pressure on kindergartens from all sides, Mayfield argues that now, more than ever, “we have to become advocates for children.” Especially for those on the threshold of the educational system.
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