In Defence of Childhood

Robert Collins Unsplash Playing Children Forest

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 was writing 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

On a late afternoon, we pulled into the school parking lot for our first visit, a group tour for a preschool just a hop, skip and a jump from our home. We were a bit nervous, palms sweating and all, as we entered the whitewashed building with it’s 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 one 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 goal of the school 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 to be not only a futile act, but possibly even damaging, when most are not developmentally ready for this type of exposure until between five- and seven-years-old!

And the Research Says...

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 in which she must explain to the 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 which expects successful students but does not care to what lengths it is achieved. The author’s conclusion is that we, as teachers and parents, have taught students that achievement is the only acceptable option. 

For quite some time, we have known that praising effort over intelligence is best practice. Research published many years ago by Dr. Carol Dweck and Co. 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 school staff meetings, this research was preached over and over, and it has been in my vernacular for the last 20 years. We know best practice is to praise effort but is that truly happening in practice?

Fast forward to 2007 and I am physically dragging my husband out of a preschool tour because 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 if we 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 in Action

Here in Switzerland, preschool and kindergarten are reserved for learning to socialize and develop independent skills. Much like the system in Finland which is known for their push for well socialized and emotionally aware students. You would never find a Swiss teacher drilling numbers and letters into a 3-year-old. For that matter, you wouldn’t have found that in the US when I was a child either.

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 3 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 that are not tied to success or failure, but to the sheer enjoyment in 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, we found a preschool set back in the woods and the children were exposed to play based learning where our 3-year-old was excited to go to school everyday! I’m stepping off my soapbox now.

April Remfrey is an American special needs consultant living and loving life in Switzerland. Please feel free to share this blog post by giving credit to the author and the website link: