All work or lots of play?

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Work or play

A plethora of recent international educational comparison tables has reignited the fierce debate about what age is best for children to begin formal schooling. On one hand are the scientific studies that point to the enduring value of playtime until the age of six or seven years old; on the other, are the arguments that children can be taught reading and numeracy skills far earlier than this, and that it benefits disadvantaged kids to start school as soon as possible and lessens the disruption to the work force flow by getting mothers back into employment quicker.

As Caroline Sharp of the National Foundation for Educational Research points out, “for many years the UK has been out of step with other countries in expecting children to start school at an early age,” parents like it, but is it best for children?

In most of the UK children start formal school at five years old, but many are four, and in Northern Ireland they must begin at 4 years and 2 months. By contrast, most of the rest of the world starts school aged six, with some countries, including Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Slovenia, starting at age 7.

The top performing children in both the TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) and the IEA Study of reading ability come from countries where schooling begins aged six. In a further small mathematics study, students from England were compared with students from Slovenia. Results showed that the additional two years of study provided absolutely no lasting advantage once the children had attained the age of 13.

In New Zealand, where children begin school at either 5 or 7, research has shown that by the age of 11 there is no difference in reading ability between the two groups but that the children who begin learning aged 5 have less positive attitudes towards reading and poorer comprehension abilities when studying texts.

These statistics leave parents who favour early school starts, up in arms. Everybody knows at least one child who could read fluently by aged three and has gone on to excel in every school subject. Tiger parents (aka helicopter / lawnmower / bulldozer parents) who chant the mantra “my child must do better …” are vocal in their belief that “more” equals “improved” education, and playtime should be either structured or firmly left behind in toddlerhood.

However, researchers claim that just because some children show reading and number skills at an early age, does not mean that the evidence against early schooling is incorrect. Such children generally hail from homes stuffed with books, and families where children are educationally stimulated. As Caroline Sharp points out, “while it does appear to be possible for schools to teach young children basic reading, writing and numeracy skills, there appears to be no lasting benefit to such learning.”

The reverse is true of play, according to Cambridge researcher, David Whitebread, from the Faculty of Education. When children play they are more physically active than they are in a school setting, they are also more able to choose their preferred type of activity and the emphasis shifts from the abstract concepts of reading, writing and arithmetic to social, oral and memory skills. Children can try out new types of behaviour in play and decide if they are worth adopting in their non-fantasy life. Biologists at Cambridge University concur. In studies they have linked childhood playtime with the ability to construct creative solutions to problems in adult life. It appears that playing doctors and nurses, building palaces from lego, dressing up and holding a teddy bears’ picnic is all serious stuff for future development.

David Whitehead urges countries with earlier school starts to look at the research and extend play-based pre-school to age 7. He claims there are anthropological, neuroscientific, educational and psychological factors which require play in a young child for healthy development of both learning and problem solving.

Playing leads to synaptic growth in the frontal cortex - the part of the brain responsible for higher mental activities and emotional skills. By contrast, lack of play, and an early introduction to the rigors of school, can lead to poor self-esteem and demotivation in the learning experience. A recent study by UC Berkeley psychologist Sheri Johnson also suggests there are negative cognitive effects of setting demanding goals at an early age.

A recent Unicef study found children from the Netherlands to be the most fortunate, followed by Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Spain. The UK came bottom in the study of child well being across 21 countries, with the United States placed 20th.

All of the top scoring countries had very child-centred societies where there was a “strong tendency for mothers to raise children and take a long time off work after children are born,” explained Professor Paul Vangeert of the University of Groningen. The study’s categories were: material well-being; family and peer relationships; health and safety; behaviour and risks; own sense of educational well-being;  and own sense of subjective well-being. In short, the top countries were raising happy, well-educated children.

Even if children have plenty of play and start school at the optimum moment, it can be difficult for parents to find the balance between helping and smothering or pushing. Kim Wong Keltner, author of “Tiger Babies Strike Back”, shows no ambiguity over what she considers the most important childhood factors to be. “You can study harder and get straight As,” she explained. “But from my point of view, the love and affection in a parent-child relationship far outweighs the importance of grades.”

In the thorny issue of when and how to educate, it’s easy to lose sight of the end goal and the truth of Johann Wolfgang van Goethe’s observation: “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.”

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