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[xmca] Kndergarten Cram: When is play?

So many people on xmca are interested in play, I could not help forwarding
this article which kept me company over lunch.
Smile, cry,
Iis a #2 pencil
sticking in your eye?
Kindergarten Cram New York Times Magazine, The (NY) - Sunday, May 3, 2009
About a year ago, I made the circuit of kindergartens in my town. At each
stop, after the pitch by the principal and the obligatory exhibit of art
projects only a mother (the student's own) could love, I asked the same
question: "What is your policy on homework?"

And always, whether from the apple-cheeked teacher in the public school or
the earnest administrator of the "child centered" private one, I was met
with an eager nod. Oh, yes, each would explain: kindergartners are assigned
homework every day.

Bzzzzzzt. Wrong answer.

When I was a child, in the increasingly olden days, kindergarten was a place
to play. We danced the hokeypokey, swooned in suspense over Duck, Duck, Gray
Duck (that's what Minnesotans stubbornly call Duck, Duck, Goose) and napped
on our mats until the Wake-Up Fairy set us free.

No more. Instead of digging in sandboxes, today's kindergartners prepare for
a life of multiple-choice boxes by plowing through standardized tests with
cuddly names like Dibels (pronounced "dibbles"), a series of early-literacy
measures administered to millions of kids; or toiling over reading curricula
like Open Court -- which features assessments every six weeks.

According to "Crisis in the Kindergarten," a report recently released by the
Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, all that
testing is wasted: it neither predicts nor improves young children's
educational outcomes. More disturbing, along with other academic demands,
like assigning homework to 5-year-olds, it is crowding out the one thing
that truly is vital to their future success: play.

A survey of 254 teachers in New York and Los Angeles the group commissioned
found that kindergartners spent two to three hours a day being instructed
and tested in reading and math. They spent less than 30 minutes playing.
"Play at age 5 is of great importance not just to intellectual but
emotional, psychological social and spiritual development," says Edward
Miller, the report's co-author. Play -- especially the let's-pretend,
dramatic sort -- is how kids develop higher-level thinking, hone their
language and social skills, cultivate empathy. It also reduces stress, and
that's a word that should not have to be used in the same sentence as
"kindergartner" in the first place.

I came late to motherhood, so I had plenty of time to ponder friends' mania
for souped-up childhood learning. How was it that the same couples who
piously proclaimed that 31/2-year-old Junior was not "developmentally ready"
to use the potty were drilling him on flashcards? What was the rush? Did
that better prepare kids to learn? How did 5 become the new 7, anyway?

There's no single reason. The No Child Left Behind Act, with its insistence
that what cannot be quantified cannot be improved, plays a role. But so do
parents who want to build a better child. There is also what marketers refer
to as KGOY -- Kids Getting Older Younger -- their explanation for why
3-year-olds now play with toys that were initially intended for
middle-schoolers. (Since adults are staying younger older -- 50 is the new
30! -- our children may soon surpass us in age.)

Regardless of the cause, Miller says, accelerating kindergarten is
unnecessary: any early advantage fades by fourth grade. "It makes a parent
proud to see a child learn to read at age 4, but in terms of what's really
best for the kid, it makes no difference." For at-risk kids, pushing too
soon may backfire. The longitudinal High/Scope Preschool Curriculum
Comparison Study followed 68 such children, who were divided between
instruction- and play-based classrooms. While everyone's I.Q. scores
initially rose, by age 15, the former group's academic achievement
plummeted. They were more likely to exhibit emotional problems and spent
more time in special education. "Drill and kill," indeed.

Thinkers like Daniel Pink have proposed that this country's continued
viability hinges on what is known as the "imagination economy": qualities
like versatility, creativity, vision -- and playfulness -- that cannot be
outsourced. It's a compelling argument to apply here, though a bit
disheartening too: must we append the word "economy" to everything to
legitimize it? Isn't cultivating imagination an inherent good? I would hate
to see children's creativity subject to the same parental anxiety that has
stoked the sales of Baby Einstein DVDs.

Jean Piaget famously referred to "the American question," which arose when
he lectured in this country: how, his audiences wanted to know, could a
child's development be sped up? The better question may be: Why are we so
hellbent on doing so?

Maybe the current economic retrenchment will trigger a new perspective on
early education, something similar to the movement toward local,
sustainable, organic food. Call it Slow Schools. After all, part of what got
us into this mess was valuing achievement, speed and results over ethics,
thoughtfulness and responsibility. Then again, parents may glean the
opposite lesson, believing their kids need to be pushed even harder in order
to stay competitive in a shrinking job market.

I wonder how far I'm willing to go in my commitment to the cause: would I
embrace the example of Finland -- whose students consistently come out on
top in international assessments -- and delay formal reading instruction
until age 7? Could I stick with that position when other second graders were
gobbling up "War and Peace" -- or at least the third Harry Potter book?

In the end, the school I found for my daughter holds off on homework until
fourth grade. (Though a flotilla of research shows homework confers no
benefit -- enhancing neither retention nor study habits -- until middle
school.) It's a start. A few days ago, though, I caught her concocting a
pretend math worksheet. "All the other kids have homework," she complained
with a sigh. "I wish I could have some, too."

Peggy Orenstein, a contributing writer, is the author of "Waiting for
Daisy," a memoir.
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