Reading or playing?

Before having children I had an academic interest in Education. I would read newspaper articles and the Times Educational Supplement. I had a job that allowed me to mingle with KS3 teachers and visit schools to talk to children or take part in astronomy workshops. But as I said, Education was just an academic subject to me. And surely I was not familiar with the nitty–gritty details of school education.

It is now that I have two children that education issues have become relevant to me. I can appreciate how education policies affect my children’s present and future. I can see how good education practices do not only support my children academically, but more crucially help them become creative, emotionally intelligent human beings.

So it really saddens me, or dare I say infuriates me, to see that the current education system is constantly pushing early formal and cognitive based learning to children as young as four years old. I am really struggling to understand what the benefits of this approach to young children are. And I am afraid I cannot.

Having spent five years in Greece and becoming familiar with their educational system, where children start learning to read at the age of six, I was horrified to find out that children in the English Reception class are subject to a strict curriculum and are taught phonics within the first couple weeks of school.

Children in Greek Reception and Year 1 work on developing soft skills through play and outdoor activities. They only learn to count to 10 and write down their own name.  The school day is also shorter starting at 8.15am and finishing at 12.15pm. To be honest with you up to a few months ago I just could not visualise a normal four and a half years old child being able to decode words, read and having weekly homework assignments.

My son is at an outstanding primary school. Their EYFS provision is excellent given the constraints of the curriculum and they encourage free unconstructive play with elements of the Reggio Emilia approach. But I see children who are not ready to cope with such a rigorous academic curriculum. What happens to those children? Research shows that they are gradually left behind and are likely to be behind when they are older. More crucially, all the children miss out on a vital part of their life. Care-free and creative childhood.

So I completely agree with Susie Steiner when arguing that Six-year-olds need to play more than they need to spell. (This Guardian article triggered today’s random thoughts on early education…)

But I am afraid the current education trend in this country dictates that playing is a waste of time and children should rush into learning their letter sounds and reading their story books from a very young age. Apparently, the cost of that approach to the children’s well-being and learning is not part of the policy makers’ equation.


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