In Defense of Childhood

Robert Collins Unsplash Playing Children Forest

There is a universal truth for all children — whether they’re living in the US or Switzerland, attending public, private, or international schools, typically developing or with neurodiversities — and that is that we need to allow them to be children. 


This is my family’s story of our search for an appropriate, play-based learning environment, along with the research and facts supporting the important idea of defending childhood. 


The Search for the Perfect Preschool


When our daughter was three years old, we decided it was time for her to join a formal preschool setting. She was an early talker and was showing interest in books and writing. At bedtime, she insisted we read her a certain number of books and wrote on anything she could get her hands on — including walls. It was clear she was ready.

We began our search with three different local schools, each with a different take on early childhood education: religious, forest immersion, and Montesorri. We had heard the pros and cons of each but tried to reserve judgment until seeing them for ourselves. At that point, I had been teaching both general and special education for nine years and had my own opinions on early childhood education. However, I kept an open mind acknowledging that every child is different, and we were choosing a place specific to our daughter’s needs.

Crushing the Excitement of Learning


Our first stop was a preschool just a hop, skip, and jump from our home. We pulled into the school parking lot for our group tour one late afternoon. We were a bit nervous, palms sweating and all, as we entered the whitewashed building with its green trim and soaring pine trees. Our first impression was positive; the building appeared clean and welcoming, and the head of school and bubbly tour guide seemed engaged and enthusiastic.

All was well until we entered the first classroom. The room’s interior mimicked the exterior of the building: whitewashed with green trim. There were no posters on the walls, no toys tucked into the corners, no inviting child-friendly seating. The classroom felt like a room for older elementary school children, not for three-year-olds to grow and play. Trying to better understand what was going on, I asked about their daily activities.

In her excited, high-pitched voice, the tour guide explained that the school’s goal was to teach the three-year-olds their letters and numbers by the end of the school year. I’m sure I did not hide my surprise, regardless she continued her prepared speech. 


She pointed at a small round table in the corner and explained it was where someone would work one-on-one with the students who were not progressing in their learning. At this point, I know my face showed my disapproval. Letter and number mastery at three years old? I noticed other parents nodding their heads in agreement, but I recoiled at the notion that trying to teach three-year-olds the beginnings of academics was a positive rather than a negative. 


Yes, maybe some would be ready, but it seemed not only futile but possibly even damaging. Most are not developmentally ready for this type of exposure until they’re between five and seven years old!

The Cost of Achievement


The Atlantic published a piece in 2015 aptly titled, “When Success Leads to Failure.” In this piece, Jessica Lahey tells the story of a parent-teacher conference where she told a parent that “her child has sacrificed her natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement.” Ms. Lahey questions our motives as a society that expects successful students but does not care how that is achieved. The author concludes that we, as teachers and parents, have taught students that achievement is the only acceptable option.

We have known that it is better to praise effort over intelligence for quite some time. Research published many years ago by Dr. Carol Dweck et al. made it into the mainstream in a 1998 New York Times article. Although this may have been my first exposure to Dr. Dweck, it surely wasn’t the last! At staff meetings, school leadership preached this research over and over, and it has been in my vernacular for the last twenty years. We know it’s better to praise effort but is that truly happening in practice?

It should be. 

Fast forward to 2007, where I was physically dragging my husband out of a preschool tour because neither Dr. Dweck’s research nor Ms. Lahey’s insights had permeated their whitewashed walls. I honestly don’t remember if we finished the tour or left right then and there. What I do remember was the hiss of my disapproving voice into my husband’s ear: “She has her whole life to hate school! Why would they want to start that at three years old?”

The Importance of Play 


Here in Switzerland, preschool and kindergarten are reserved for socializing and developing skills that foster independence.  You would never find a Swiss teacher drilling numbers and letters into a three-year-old. For that matter, you wouldn’t have found that in the US when I was a child either.


Finland is also known for emphasizing well-socialized and emotionally-aware students. Their preschool programs understand the importance of play and don’t push academics before children are ready. They recognize that when children play, they:


  • Actually are learning skills that will lead to success in math and literacy — when they’re ready
  • Are developing cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically 
  • Become excited and motivated about learning and school


We need to let children be children. The fear of our children being left behind in an ever-competitive world has led to unrealistic academic expectations for children as young as three years old. Instilling a love for learning and school starts very young; however, if we don’t approach education the right way, we can also teach children to hate school from a very young age. Most parents and educators would agree that we want our children to love to learn. 


We need to recognize that we can foster a love of learning by providing opportunities not tied to success or failure but to the sheer enjoyment of figuring out something new.

So please, run away from the preschools that tout their ability to push developmentally inappropriate facts into your child’s head. Run toward the preschools that foster experiential learning, social-emotional growth, and curiosity for learning and life. 


Thankfully, our story has a happy ending. We found a preschool set back in the woods, where teachers exposed the children to play-based learning. Our three-year-old was excited to go to school every day, and when the time was right, she learned her letters and numbers eagerly.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or need help navigating the system for a child with additional learning needs, I can help! Contact me for a consultation.