Suzanne Bouffard's new book, The Most Important Year, may be just what parents of preschoolers have been waiting for; a guide to what a quality pre-K program should look like.
It's not that we didn't know this was coming. As kindergarten has been retooled to become the New First Grade, or maybe the New Second Grade, where littles are bolted into desks so that they can get their studies under way and we can confidently say whether or not a six year old is on the path to college and career, it was clear that this toxic stew of inappropriate expectations would trickle down to Pre-K as well.
|This guy. Genius. You just wait.|
The signs are everywhere. The mommy bogs have been buzzing about this Pre-K newsletter that chastises parents because their three- and four-year-olds are causing problems, so that the first month has been "a really tough first month with tears, attitudes, unwillingness, not listening, not obeying the rules and especially, too much talking and not enough sitting in seats when asked to." Honestly, they've just been acting like a bunch of children.
Also circulating has been this form, supposedly a Kindergarten readiness inventory from Pennsylvania (while many folks have told me it looks right, I haven't been able to confirm the source). There are thirty "indicators" listed, including algebraic thinking, counting, collaborative communication, writing process, text analysis, phonics and printing words. Again, just so we're clear, this is to be ready to enter kindergarten, not a list of exit skills.
So it should come as no surprise that Bouffard's ideas about a good Pre-K are, well, scholastically oriented:
Successful pre-K [programs] teach children to learn to be learners, how to be curious about how things work and find answers to problems.
No. First of all, if you are trying to teach a four year old how to be curious, you are seriously confused. This is like trying to teach them to breathe, or to be short. Just get out of the way and try to be helpful. Oh, and then she adds this:
Another really important piece of a good program is that it focuses on things like self-control and behavior in the class, how to wait your turn, how to share, how to deal with frustration and how to solve conflicts.
Yes, when you send a small child to any group thing, you are hoping they will learn how to share, take turns, and generally co-exist with others. But "focus" on "self-control and behavior"? Are we seriously advocating teaching three and four year olds to properly knuckle under and submit to the system?
Look, I get that small children must learn to behave like reasonably civilized creatures and not wild animals. And later in the interview Bouffard makes some better points about letting children construct their own learning and the dangers of shaming children (and teachers) to improve and even acknowledging that children develop different skills at different rates.
Now that being said, its never too early to expose children to rich language, word games, shapes of letters and the sounds they make. But there's a big difference between exposing children to those things and expecting everybody to meet a certain reading standard at a certain age and testing them on it.
I'm glad she said that. I'm sorry she didn't more explicitly say that expecting to meet a certain standard is wrong and damaging and is a clear sign that a Pre-K is toxic and to be avoided. Instead, she includes a story about helping a little figure out a trick for solving the problem of writing sixes backwards.
When it comes to play versus academics, Bouffard is from the "false dichotomy" school for folks who believe that you can, you know, just guide the play a little to have an academic experience. "Free play is very important and it has its place in and out of school, but we shouldn't be afraid of curricula that tries to teach specific things." Here we disagree. For the littles, play is the only thing that really matters. It is the number one priority. And if it's called "curricula," it most likely doesn't belong in Pre-K.
Sigh. Deep breath.
I've been to Pre-K with my grandson in Seattle, where they have a great network of Pre-K's. He played. Sometimes he played by himself, sometimes with others, sometimes games that the teacher led, sometimes games that obviously had some learning content. That all seemed about right to me-- and my grandson is, in my objective professional opinion, a genius. His language use is very sophisticated and he Knows Stuff. He's an exemplary kid, and that's for basically one simple reason-- my daughter has played with him pretty much every day of his life. Not tried to "teach" him stuff-- just played with him in a rich environment, with lots of love and exploring and play.
I have what may be a unique perspective on early childhood education. My older children are around thirty; my younger twins are about to turn four months. I look at the huge gulf that separates the kindergarten of my older children's generation from the early childhood ed of my twins and grandchildren and all I can think is what insane humans commandeered this part of the education world that is responsible for the care of such vulnerable, precious cargo?
Bouffard does get one this part right:
If a child has been in a supportive and nurturing classroom, then goes into a classroom that's strict and focused on punishing children, that's a rude awakening.
The big take-way here is: Any gains a child makes in a quality preschool program will fade away in a classroom that's not supportive and nurturing.
But I don't think books like Bouffard's will help. At this point, the mania for academia is so strong that even a decent, responsible, play-oriented Pre-K has to mask its program by talking about curriculum and skills. Too much damage is being done to too many littles, and we're going to be paying for it for years.