What did you do at school today? "Just played". Perfect.
Dear Kindergarten Mums and Dads. Are you feeling the pressure for your child to be school ready?
As your 4 and 5 year olds embark on their schooling journey, as you wipe tears from your eyes at first drop off (or celebrate with champagne at 9am in the parking-lot if that is more your style), please remember this: Kindergarten is a time for your child to experience the togetherness of being in a community, making new friends, and chasing moments of wonder and pure fun.
This time 12 months ago I went to enrol my son in a local Kinder. Rather than a welcome letter or anything remotely friendly in the enrolment pack there was just an enrolment form and an A4 handwriting sheet outlining all the correct ways to write the letters of the alphabet. WHOA. Hold up. I instantly felt pressure- that my child needed to know how to do this (and the RIGHT way) and that clearly it was my job to teach them before they started. My child was not in any way interested in writing and didn’t even know what all of the letters of the alphabet were. In fact, he was the child who scribbled ‘kind-of’ stick people that resembled a drunk praying mantis and would get the day carer to write “my mum is pretty” as the description. So panic set it. I am not easily panicked. But this A4 sheet had me all in a tizz. Then I paused for a moment - “Hang on”, I thought. This does not sit well with me. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with children knowing the correct way to write letters, or having an interest in doing so at such a young age, but surely this isn't what Kinder is about. Maybe I am over-reacting to this A4 sheet. Maybe they did not mean to apply pressure - but what bothered me is the cultural shift it represents. There is something a little amiss with this A4 sheet being the very first introduction a family has to Kinder. My handwriting aversive little man was accepted into another Kinder the same week (they just said “we can’t wait to meet you” - no A4 sheets involved) and we haven’t looked back.
Something is worrying me about the way we approach Kinder in this day and age. It is supposed to be a year for children to adjust to being at school, with their peers. Time to develop skills in following routines, making friends, learning how to share their sand-pit trucks and bringing home endless unrecognisable paintings (how DO you sneak them into the bin without them noticing? If anyone has any suggestions, please advise!). Instead we have pressure. SO MUCH pressure. And our children are suffering because of it. I have seen children and parents fall apart from the pressure of Kindergarten. Sometimes that pressure comes from us, as parents, and not the school.
The Kinder year is essential in laying foundations for later learning. And if we push ahead too soon- to academics, reading, and hard core arithmetic, instead of spending time working on foundation gross motor development, listening skills, empathy building, creativity, and exploration of their world - there are gaping holes in the child’s social and emotional development that will cause issues with academics later on. Because guess what? A four year old doesn't need to be able to read, or recite the times tables. If your child can- that’s wonderful, but I do hope they came to it through a natural love for those things when they were ready (some children have this thirst and if there hasn't been pressure, then that’s a wonderful thing).
A four year old needs to be able to be amongst peers (not perfectly, but with some degree of confidence and self-assurance). They should find the world fascinating, and full of endless wonders. And they need to get messy, make oodles of mistakes and have an absolute bucket-load of fun. That is all. Would you believe me if I told you that if we all backed off, provided the space for learning to happen (and a few resources) that children actually learn on their own, at their own pace? What if, right now, when they are ‘just playing’- they are busy developing all of those core underlying skills needed to be a successful academic learner when the time for academics is right?
There are some wonderfully nurturing kindergartens out there that allow children the time, space and acceptance that our children need to find their place amongst a group, and explore their environment with confidence, learning so much along the way. Try and find one.
Interestingly, my son has developed an absolute LOVE for writing. WHEN HE WAS READY. At some point in the last 12 months it all just clicked and now he spends oodles of times scribing random words and quite possibly has neater handwriting than me. There was no pressure, just lots of space to find his way to whatever he was ready to learn. Would I care if he didn’t or couldn’t do this? Not really. Our children’s neurological systems are cleverly designed to seek out the challenges and experiences they need to reach the next developmental level. And for every child the time is different. We need to respect that, or we end up messing up their learning processes by teaching the wrong things at the wrong time and developing a dislike for that area of learning.
Dear Mums and Dads. Please do not buy into the hype around ‘earlier is better’. It is not. I promise you. There are far more important things in life than being the first or the best at something. Important things like fun, and friendship, and mud… and feeling good enough.
Lisa is an imperfect mum to 2 children, a child psychologist, & founder of The Resilience Co.