Julia Steiny: Beware Early Childhood ‘Education,’ Think Learning Instead


From the President of the United States to the President of the Rhode Island Senate, early-childhood education is shaping up to be one of this year’s ed obsessions.

We’ve been here before, of course.  Head Start, a signature program from the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, was designed to improve reading readiness among low-income pre-schoolers.  Unfortunately decades of evidence show the academic gains disappearing by grade 3.  There might be lots of reasons for this, including sending those kids to crummy K-3 schools.  But my take-away is that early schooling didn’t build a good foundation for more school.  Low-income kids mainly suffer a poverty of positive experiences that ignite their own innate appetites for learning.

But a source of critical concern is the vast disparity between the vocabularies of low-income children and their middle-class peers, immortalized by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in The 30 milion word gap by age 3.  Urban children’s vocabularies put them at a huge academic disadvantage.  Later researchers such as Ruby Payne and Eric Jensen confirmed not only the scale of the gap itself, but also significant differences in the kinds of words low-income kids hear — fewer words of praise, more direct orders, and fewer open-ended questions soliciting their thoughts or efforts to formulate answers.

As the sage E.D. Hirsch says:  vocabulary is intelligence.  The size of a kid’s vocabulary is indicative of the size of her intellectual world, the foundation on which to build more information, skills and intelligence.  Children have different gifts, to be sure, but those gifts are enhanced by rich experiences and opportunities to talk about them.

Sadly, pundits and pols still believe that the solution is early-childhood “education.”  Read:  classrooms.  The idea of starting children ever earlier in classrooms gives me the willies.

Learning, yes.  Academics, not so much.

At this year’s Child-Friendly Cities conference, keynote Jens Troelsen began his remarks by saying that he not only grew up in a veritable heaven, but that he was exceedingly popular, since everyone wanted to play at his house.  He grew up on a farm.  There was a stream to dam up or float boats, animals to play with, bales of hay to make structures.  Of course, that was in Denmark, where Stranger Danger and obsession with safety have yet to paralyze parenting.  His point was that he and his friends were learning a ton, chatting up a storm as they negotiated games and projects, while having a blast.  The rhythms of farm life teach much science, without explicit instruction.  Troelsen twinkles as he talks about it.

For a more citified version, I recommend visiting urban Waldorf-inspired “learning environments,” which look nothing like whiteboard-plastered classrooms.  The wealth of toys for imaginary play are free of Disney characters, passive entertainment and cheap plastic.  The play areas mimic houses with kitchens, dining rooms, doll bedrooms, clothing closets.  Kids like to play at being adults.  And they like exploring sand and water, or making collections of rocks, bones, or whatever’s intriguing.  On a school visit I watched distinctly urban kids dash and scream, perhaps a bit more than the adults liked.  After being cooped up indoors with electronics, they were thrilled to have many choices as to what to do, and others to do it with.  The teacher’s job included monitoring children’s vocabularies with fun story-telling assessments, to ensure they were acquiring words at an accelerated rate.  They had techniques for helping those falling behind and worked with parents on game-like activities to do at home.  None of it felt academic.  Rich and brain-building, but not premature school.

Even more daring and exhilarating are the forest kindergartens of Europe and elsewhere (including New Hampshire).  Four to seven-year olds hang outside all year round.  A movie about a Swiss school shows them managing fierce cold with sledding, huddling around kid-made fires, and generally scurrying around like little animals out in nature.  Again, teachers support learning from a slight distance to oversee proper use of tools, and read to them daily. A doctor interviewed in the film says he’s never had to treat a kid for ADD who’d attended such a kindergarten.  They know how to amuse themselves exploring the world, with great concentration, and as such are well-prepared for school later on.

The young brain is hard-wired to suck up information.

Memorable experiences build synapses that should have trunks like oaks and branches that resemble well-fed crabapple trees.  Such experiences invite discussion and whet appetites for learning.

To my mind, what the three kinds of early-childhood experiences mentioned above have in common are charm and beauty.  Raw nature, cultivated farms, and even cultivated learning spaces are sensual, visual, physical, living places.  There, kids can thrive, learning to handle autonomy and calculating risks for themselves.

But well-meaning minds are stuck in the sterility of “early-childhood education.”  There are times when school gets in the way of learning.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny