By Julia Steiny
Early childhood education has become this year's education-fix obsession. From the President of the United States to the President of the Rhode Island Senate, we're now pinning our hopes for improved academic achievement on more for schooling low-income, urban kids. Specifically little kids.
The data on pre-school is far from clear. Head Start, a signature program from the Johnson administration's War on Poverty, promised to improve reading readiness among low-income pre-schoolers. But evidence shows the academic gains disappearing by grade 3.
Families are the kids' first teachers and strongest connections, so the bang for the buck likely lies in working directly with them. And I would argue the places where kids play and learn about the world is actually little kids' second teacher. More on that in a moment.
The dangers of doing nothing for kids from struggling families are all too real. Research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, immortalized in their work The 30 million word gap by age 3, demonstrates how low-income urban children's vocabularies put them at a huge academic disadvantage compared with their middle-class peers. 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 and efforts to formulate answers.
Sadly, pundits and pols still believe that the solution is early-childhood "education." Read: classrooms. This gives me the willies. Picture 3 and 4-year olds with more "seat time." Doesn't anyone worry that pre-school can teach kids to hate school earlier?
Vocabulary is intelligence, says the wise E.D. Hirsch.
The size of a kid's vocabulary is the size of her intellectual world. Vocabulary and experience are the foundation for more information, skills and intelligence. Children have different natural gifts, to be sure, but any of those innate abilities are enhanced by rich experiences and opportunities to talk about them.
Here's what's missing from the conversation, though. For a gajillian years evolution has wired children to absorb and process information at an incredible rate. They explore, put stuff in their mouths, pull up grass, make mud pies, splash water, stalk the cat. Sometimes the cat retaliates, or an obstacle causes a fall, or the stick house keeps collapsing even after much effort. That's little-kid learning. I call it downloading the software of reality. Learning about the nature of physical reality depends on a place. It doesn't have to be fancy, just rich with possibilities. The place teaches them — be it raw nature, a farm, an inventive playground, park or even a kid-friendly city apartment. Anywhere but school, which is not a place they can make their own.
School-based instruction is not a memorable way to acquire words. Better to have a wealth of experience to which vocabulary can attach. Especially with electronic distractions, kids suffer mainly from a poverty of positive experiences that ignite and feed their own hard-wired, voracious appetites for learning. Low-income kids don't need school, but more access to cool places — whether as part of paid daycare or as public services to families.
Impressive experiences will find verbal expression.
At this year's Child-Friendly Cities conference, keynote Jens Troelsen gushed about growing up in a veritable heaven, his family's farm. Adults were within earshot, but his real teachers were the stream, the animals, the bales of hay to make structures. Yes, this was in Denmark, where Stranger Danger and safety obsession had yet to paralyze parenting. But his point was that he and his friends learned a ton, chatting up a storm as they negotiated games and projects. They shared vocabulary.
At public forest kindergartens in Europe and elsewhere (including New Hampshire) kids hang outside all year round. A movie about one shows children managing fierce cold with sledding, huddling around kid-made fires, building with hammers and nails, and scurrying around like little animals. Adults oversee proper use of tools and read to them daily. Otherwise the children amuse themselves, capitalizing on the enormous capacity to learn that has evolved since the dawn of humans. As such, they are brilliantly prepared for school later on.
Home-visiting programs could help parents turn their apartment into a Waldorf-inspired "learning environment." Any kitchen can be arranged to have a play kitchen in it with access to the non-breakable muffin pans and pie tins. Kids like to play at being adults. Cast off clothing and shoes are a blast. Blankets make club houses. Parents would have to ease up on Disney characters and passive entertainment, but they should anyway.
This is a case of school getting in the way of learning.
Rather than subsidize yet another institution, provide Mom with information, support groups or even classes on how to provide spaces where kids learn on their own. Put minimalist shelters and trained play leaders in the parks for a lot less money than supporting another institution. But let the kids explore — something, somewhere. Spend resources helping the parents any way we can, but especially help them foster rich and brain-building experience. Forget premature school.