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Re: [xmca] Kndergarten Cram: When is play?

Yes, this is quite a wonderful piece, though it seems to me I've read something very like it several times before.

A dual, recurring American (only us?) preoccupation, both with get- there-first competition and with some measure of guilt about not letting-children-be-children (i.e. work vs play).

I think I've read it in connection with the competition to get into the best pre-school to prepare for the best prep school to prepare for the best college, etc. And probably with most "reforms" or proposals to start serious learning or testing earlier.

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I think a lot of quack psychometrics and anti-intellectual notions of educational "accountability" are pushing our school-based educational system over the edge into total dysfunctionality. (Maybe not a bad thing, if that forces us to re-do it completely; sorry, kids!) On the other hand romantic notions about keeping "children" safe from the responsibilities of maturity seems likely to not be the best way to support their development. And the ideological binary of Work vs Play, or Learning vs Fun is the devil's own Calvinist theology.

My generation of Americans at least, and I think the next one or two younger, are obsessively neotenous. We are trying to hold on to youth, the appearance of youth, and maybe the spirit of youthfulness in every way we can. (yes, me included!) Maybe because our youth did seem a time of great hope (60s and 70s especially, maybe 80s for some), and because, like Dr Faustus, it's not hard to recognize that a lot of things about getting old really suck! Of course our commercial culture profits mightily from selling us back our youth in commodified forms. So we are indeed getting older more slowly than before, in part objectively, and heavily inter-subjectively (and self-deceptively).

And kids? Getting older faster? how not, with so much media exposure to both diversity and trauma, however diluted or diverted? So adults, worried about our own aging always too fast, watch kids starting to grow up faster than we did, and we respond by "protecting" them from maturity, from experience, from sexuality, from responsibility, from life.

But paradoxically, we worry about their futures, because we see a world where the future looks a lot less promising than it did to us when we were young. The world population is double what it was when I was in school; catastrophic climate change is probably only a few decades away at most; and new plagues and other nasty things loom large in our imaginations. A decent, if exploited, life in a union wage job looks to be disappearing. A nice lifestyle will require professional or management status in the very near future. So homework in preschool is the sacrifice we all have to make!

No, I don't of course believe that part about homework. But our solution to our fears for kids' futures is Hard Work, defined as boring, useless, old-fashioned school work (and that includes most of it, not just the homework). Or, if we are more upper-middle class, then new-fashioned Knowledge Society -style school work -- if anyone knows what that actually is? And play? Well, that's a luxury, right? What you get to do after you finish doing your chores, your Hard Work. Pity the poor Fast-Track Kids, their after-homework time is already pre-scheduled with soccer, dance class, piano lessons, tutoring, and all the suburbinanities Mom and Dad can get on your resume for College before age 12.

When is play? Play is when you tell Mom and Dad and School and Society to go to hell and you just go out and have fun! But that is such a struggle it seems. To find a Foucauldian escape from power relations. To slip away from imposed guilt. To escape your parents' fears.

In practical terms. If the data show that early traditional academic routines do not produce lasting "developmental" gains -- and I'd like to hear people's explanations for why this is so -- then can we produce (and publicize, more) data that show that complex, imaginative play does produce such gains? Or is that also still an "accelerative" mentality? Should we really be trying to define more clearly just what sort of wonderful, amazing creature a 6- or 9- year-old human being can potentially be, if its developmental needs are fully supported? I would have a lot of confidence that in such a picture, there would be a lot of time for play, and even a little for danger.


Jay Lemke
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

On May 3, 2009, at 9:26 PM, Mike Cole wrote:

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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