Peter Pan, HighScope, and Kids

peterpanSometimes, Peter Pan is right. Remember his song, “I Won’t Grow Up?” When I think about some of the things going on in the name of early education. I’m about ready to start singing it.

There is a time to grow up, of course, but there is also a time when kids should get to be—well, kids. The richest learning in childhood requires time to explore, play, fall down, get up, make a friend, and practice imagining. And so, when I hear about kindergarten programs so focused on academics that they look like fourth grade, it makes me crazy. And don’t get me started on “academic pre-schools.” Really?

While I do believe that there are good ideas at the center of the Common Core (often badly implemented), I worry about kindergarten teachers who feel compelled to frame their days around EVERY five-year-old meeting standards like these.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.K.4: Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.K.4.B: Use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes (e.g., -ed, -s, re-, un-, pre-, -ful, -less) as a clue to the meaning of an unknown word.

In kindergarten? Good grief.

highscopelogoThinking about this made me realize I hadn’t written about some of the most important research in early childhood—and it’s happening just down the road. HighScope, headquartered in Ypsilanti, Michigan, is responsible for one of the most-cited studies in education, the Perry Preschool Study. The study examines the lives of 123 children born in poverty. From 1962–1967, at ages 3 and 4, the children were randomly divided into two groups: those who received a preschool program based on HighScope’s participatory learning approach and those who received no preschool program. Those children have been followed now for over 30 years, and the results are simply stunning. At age 40, the students who had received the preschool program had higher earnings, were more likely to hold a job, had committed fewer crimes, and were more likely to have graduated from high school than adults who did not have preschool. Imagine—a lifetime difference was made by age four.

But for me, perhaps the most important question is, “What did HighScope do?” Well, what they did not do was endless academic drill and worksheets. For me, their curriculum is a bit like the 3 Bears—not too big, not too small, but just right. Children are not left alone, but have lots of opportunities to explore with adult guidance. They learn to make choices. They learn to play and interact with other children. They are less highscopekidsconcerned with memorizing letter sounds than with learning to investigate the world around them.

In fact, another HighScope study looked not just at who did and didn’t have preschool experiences, but at different kinds of preschool experiences. Students who had HighScope, or other preschool experiences that focused on child-initiated learning, were compared with preschoolers given direct academic instruction. All the preschool groups did well academically, but the students who had experienced the child-initiated approach had a substantial social advantage. By age 23 they had fewer arrests, less chance of being identified with emotional troubles, and were more likely to be living with a spouse.

These differences don’t just appear in HighScope programs. In another study comparing preschool models, students who were in academically-focused preschools did better initially, but over time those who had experienced more self-directed learning “pulled ahead.” These studies are important because some of the most important differences don’t emerge for years.

So what does all this research mean? First, of course, high quality early education matters. A lot. Differences in the ways young children explore and interact with the world shape their behaviors for the rest of their lives. And second, high quality early education does not look like high school. Or fourth grade. It looks like children playing and exploring with caring adults who guide their interactions with the world. There is no shortcut past childhood—nor should we want one.

Perhaps its time to teach our young people to sing a rousing chorus of “I Won’t Grow Up,”—at least not until it is time.

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