By Susan Wight
Preschool attendance has always been optional in Australia but the issue of compulsory preschool continues to raise its ugly head with depressing regularity.
Parents paying expensive daycare fees may be in favour of government funded preschool programs. In order for a compulsory national preschool year to gain popular approval, though, the public would have to be indoctrinated into believing that preschool is beneﬁcial for every child – a situation which would result in reluctant parents being scared into thinking that if their child does not attend kindergarten they will be disadvantaged. Judging by the lack of outcry when the push for compulsory preschool hits the media, this indoctrination is well underway and parents who resist preschool pressure are ﬁnding themselves a quiet minority. But is this preschool push justiﬁed? Is kindergarten essential? What is its purpose and is it really unquestionably beneﬁcial for young children? It is commonly believed that preschool will give children a head start both socially and academically when starting school. But is this true?
The Purpose of Kindergarten
“Kindergarten” is a German word which means, literally “Children’s Garden”, and many people believe this means a garden which provides a pleasant place for children to play. Whilst Froebel, the inventor of kindergarten, was undoubtedly a strong proponent of play, his “children’s garden” was also a metaphor where the children were a garden of plants to be carefully trained. This was reﬂected in Australia when the Rev. Richard Hill established his infants’ school in Sydney in 1824. His aim was partly to relieve working mothers from the care of their children during the day but he also saw his charges as a garden where he could plant desirable values to “pre-occupy” the soil, preventing “the growth of noxious weeds.” The purpose of preschool has always been three-fold.
The social agenda of kindergarten has always been present. The kindergarten movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in America was built on the premise that educators could not “catch” a child too early to bring him into a new social order. “The kindergarten age is your earliest opportunity to catch the little Russian, little Italian, the little Pole… and begin to make an American …out of him,” an early New York preschool educator boasted. In Australia kindergarten was promoted to keep children “properly occupied” without “dangerously stimulating their brains”. Children were taught to “love cleanliness and order” and develop “deft ﬁngers and a desire for useful work”. Carefully selected games replaced traditional ones such as “kissing in the ring” and “postman’s knock” which were considered vulgar.
Research on Preschool
The major argument quoted in favour of compulsory preschool is usually that preschool programs, including pre-literacy and numeracy skills, make the transition to school easier for children, and thereby increase the chances of school success. University studies are often quoted to support the perceived academic beneﬁts of preschool. What is not often mentioned is that whilst these studies demonstrate preschool in a favourable light when compared with an impoverished home environment; preschool environments and results do not compare favourably with the average home environment. Even Professor Edward Zigler, credited as “the father of Head Start” a well-respected American preschool program admits “there is a large body of evidence that there is little to be gained by exposing middle class children to early education…(and) evidence that indicates early schooling is inappropriate for many four-year-olds, and that it may be harmful to their development.” So what about the long-term academic effects of preschool? The longitudinal studies, often quoted to argue an academic advantage provided by preschool for lower socio-economic groups, actually also show that this “advantage” disappears by grade three.
If preschool were truly beneﬁcial in terms of giving children a head start, those places with some form of compulsory preschool should do demonstrably better academically. The evidence does not bear this out. The two states of America which have compulsory preschool, Georgia and Oklahoma, have the lowest results for fourth grade reading tests in the country. In 2000, the Program for International Study Assessment (PISA) compared the academic scores of children from 32 industrialised nations in reading literacy, maths and science. The results showed that in countries where schooling starts at a young age they do not consistently outperform those who start later. Finland, which has a compulsory schooling age of seven, held the top ranking in all test subjects of the Third International Mathematics and Science (TIMS) results in 1999. Singapore, which also scored highly in the PISA and TIMS assessments, has no publicly funded early education programs. Sweden, which has one of the most comprehensive early child-care programs in Europe, was one of the lowest scoring nations. Perhaps most tellingly of all, in the 1990s Hungary and Czechoslovakia, who had day-care programs, cut them signiﬁcantly after studies determined that institutional care damages preschool-aged children.
But what about the much-touted social beneﬁts of preschool programs? Here again, there is research to refute this. A 2005 Stanford University study reported, “We ﬁnd that attendance in preschool centers, even for short periods of time each week, hinder the rate at which young children develop social skills and display the motivation to engage in classroom tasks, as reported by their [prep] teachers.” A lack of social skills development was reported in three speciﬁc areas: “children’s externalizing behaviours (such as aggression, bullying, acting up), interpersonal skills (such as sharing and cooperation), and self-control in engaging in classroom tasks.” Likewise, in a 2003 study, Sarah Friedman reported, “the more time children had spent in non-maternal child care across the ﬁrst 4.5 years of life, the more adults reported conﬂict with the child and such problem behaviours as aggression, disobedience, and assertiveness.”
The Home and Preschool Environments Compared
Tizard and Hughes researched the language environments at home and in preschools in the UK. Their method involved tape-recording the conversations of four-year-old girls at preschool in the morning and again at home with their mothers in the afternoon.
“As we started to study and analyse the transcripts, we became increasingly aware of how rich this [home] environment was for all the children (working-class and middle-class). The conversations between the children and their mothers ranged freely over a variety of topics. The idea that children’s interests were restricted to play and TV was clearly untenable. At home the children discussed topics like work, the family, birth, growing up, and death; they talked with their mothers about things they had done together in the past, and their plans for the future; they puzzled over such diverse topics as the shape of roofs and chairs, the nature of Father Christmas, and whether the Queen wears curlers in bed. Many of these conversations took place during recognizably educational contexts – such as during play or while reading books – but many did not. A large number of the more fruitful conversations simply cropped up as the children and their mothers went about their afternoon’s business at home – having lunch, planning shopping expeditions, feeding the baby and so on. When we came to analyse the conversations between these same children and their [preschool] teachers, we could not avoid being disappointed. The children were certainly happy at school, for much of the time absorbed in play. However, their conversations with their teachers made a sharp contrast to those with their mothers. The richness, depth and variety which characterised the home conversations were sadly missing. So too was the sense of intellectual struggle, and of the real attempts to communicate being made by both sides. The questioning, puzzling child which we were so taken with at home was gone: in her place was a child who, when talking to staff, seemed subdued, and whose conversations with adults were mainly restricted to answering questions rather than asking them, or taking part in minimal exchanges about the whereabouts of other children and play materials.
In all this research, it is difﬁcult to sort out to what extent there is a difference between compulsory preschool programs and optional preschool but it seems that there is enough evidence both to question the push towards compulsory preschool and to throw doubt on the theory that preschool is beneﬁcial for all. Children at home with their families are not disadvantaged. Indeed they are very likely better off. So if your child does not wish to go to kindergarten, or you do not wish to send them, rest assured that you are not depriving them. Relationships are the most important part of life. For small children especially, the time spent in the secure home environment is invaluable. Contrary to popular opinion, forcing children to separate from their parents before they are ready to is not necessary. Alan Thomas and Jane Lowe write, “Despite the unsubstantiated claims of professionals that young people who learn at home will be unable to separate from their parents later, we have found no evidence of any problems of this kind among home educators. We think that the reverse is true. Children who feel secure, valued and self-conﬁdent within the family seem to be more able to adjust to change and to new situations as they grow and mature. Research with young children has shown that those in closer, more nurturant families are more independent outside the family, not less so (Lewis et all, 1984).”
Preschool should remain optional so that parents are in control of the amount of time their children spend there. For some families this will be full time, for others, no time at all, but as a society we should stop pressuring families into thinking that a decision not to preschool their child is somehow irresponsible and will disadvantage the child. The evidence just does not support this view. As Dianne Flynn Keith observes, “Little kids deserve a secure place to spend their days where they are encouraged to learn – especially in the ﬁrst five years of life, when their brains are growing rapidly. Somehow, we, as a society, are forgetting that home is a child’s best “preschool”. Since the beginning of humanity, parents have provided a safe home, a natural routine, a stimulating environment, nutritious food, and loving interaction. Children become smart, happy, self-conﬁdent, self-sufﬁcient, curious and capable learners, fully prepared to tackle academics and life skills when they are developmentally ready and motivated to do so. Learning at home with loving parents (who may also use private and co-op preschool programs in their community) is a better model for healthy, intellectual, physical, social and emotional development of young children than any government preschool could ever be.
Recipe comes from Barbara Frank’s Preschool Pressure or Preschool Peace
Published in Otherways issue 109