On a recent afternoon in Niles, a 4-year-old girl sits down at a desk, pencil in hand and waits quietly for her reading worksheet. She diligently fills in the blank spaces under drawings of objects, such as "ee" in feet. She repeats the oral drills her tutor presents: "Push the wagon. Pull the wagon." Her worksheet is graded and she is awarded stickers for her work.
About the same time, over in Evanston, another little girl manipulates some modeling clay. First, she rolls it into a snake and then transforms it into the letter A. "Look!" she shouts to her teacher, holding up the letter. The teacher, busy at the water table, smiles and responds, "There’s an A in your name, isn’t there? S-A-L-L-Y."
The first child goes to bi-weekly tutoring sessions at the Kumon Math and Reading Center; the second attends a play-based program called Cherry Preschool. Both are being prepared for kindergarten. But which style builds a stronger foundation for school? Which is more age-appropriate? Who will grow up with a love for learning and who risks falling behind?
Any parent of a preschooler can tell you these questions aren’t just the stuff of Ph.D. dissertations. Many parents feel increased pressure to prep their young children for kindergarten and a growing number use tutoring services to ensure children as young as 3 or 4 can read and do basic math.
At the same time, child development experts decry the rush to push children before they are ready. They argue that a young child’s job is to develop the social and emotional aspects of their brains through play. Shifting early childhood education from exploration to recitation, they say, will result in young adults who are emotionally weary and intellectually unable to think independently.
The kindercramming trend
"There’s no question that the expectation is greater than it was a generation ago," says Barbara Bowman, chief officer of Early Childhood Education for the Chicago Public Schools. Back then, she says, many believed that "if you came to kindergarten healthy and relatively happy, you’d be able to succeed."
In recent years, however, brain research has revealed that a young child’s mind can learn and comprehend much more than previously believed. Preschool, Bowman says, now teaches the reading and math fundamentals that had been once been saved for kindergarten.
But there’s another reason why students are expected to learn more at a younger age: No Child Left Behind. When the legislation became law in 2002, schools faced intense pressure to make sure their students passed new mandated tests, including tests for children as young as third grade. This focus on student performance has now trickled down to those not yet enrolled in school.
"The world we live in is very competitive and our children might as well learn that in the beginning," says parent Simone Kamish. "If your child is taught study skills from a very young age, then they have an easier time later on. If they try to learn in third or fourth grade, it’s harder."
This is why Kamish will enroll her 4-year-old in the Junior Kumon program this fall. She has seen dramatic improvement in her two older children’s ability to read and comprehend math since enrolling them in Kumon. She says her children enjoy school because they have confidence, knowing they’re not behind their peers.
About the time No Child Left Behind was passed, companies such as Sylvan Learning Centers and Kumon, a Japanese tutoring company, began developing tutoring programs for 3, 4 and 5 year olds. This increasingly popular trend even developed a name: "kindercramming."
In 2003, there were about 13,000 preschool-aged children nationwide enrolled in the Junior Kumon program. Currently, there are more than 34,000, making up almost 20 percent of Kumon’s total enrollment. In Chicago, the cost ranges from $100 to $125 per month for either math or reading, though many parents sign up for both.
Michelle Bettuzzi, instructor for the Kumon center in Niles, says an increase in school testing has certainly resulted in an increased work load for young children, which many aren’t prepared to handle.
"Our culture says, ‘Let them play, let them develop all those social skills,’ and then bam, there is all this information," she says. "We’re like the tortoise and the hare: we like to start early and then slow and steady wins the race."
Mary Mokris, vice president of materials development for Kumon North America, says some children enrolled in its centers are unable to write yet or can’t sit for more than five minutes at a time. Kumon gives children work at their level of comprehension. Math worksheets, for example, begin by counting bunnies or ducks, she says, long before numbers are introduced.
Kumon centers don’t promise to teach preschoolers to read or master addition. But when they do, says Bettuzzi, those children are clearly proud of their accomplishments and are eager to learn more.
Why the rush?
There’s no question that some young children are able to learn the alphabet or even how to read, says Gillian McNamee, director of teacher education at the Erikson Institute. But for her, drilling preschoolers on words and numbers is like forcing babies to crawl months before they are developmentally ready.
"It’s this message that sooner is better and it’s wrong," she says. "It’s a betrayal of our children and says, ‘You’re not trying hard enough; you’re not accomplishing what I think is important.’ "
People forget how essential the preschool years are for social and emotional development, she says. If the emphasis of preschool learning is placed on basic coping skills—from resolving conflicts to staying quiet while others speak to learning how to zip a coat—then children will be ready in kindergarten to tackle academic learning.
But in a world of tests and concrete measurements, the value of social skills can easily be forgotten. Debbie Boileve, executive director for Cherry Preschool, says she understands the pressure schools feel to teach material to increasingly younger grade levels.
When Boileve recently met with kindergarten teachers in Evanston to ask them what they needed from preschools, they told her to teach children how to write their names, learn alphabet sounds and other information now required in kindergarten.
"We said, ‘Sorry, we don’t do that, but you’ll have children you’ll be pleased with, children who know how to sit at a desk, who are ready to learn,’" she says.
Boileve and her staff are on a "crusade to save play," and not only because they believe in its emotional benefits. When pressure to pass tests squeezes out imaginative play, she says, children lose the building blocks of learning that develop into genuine understanding later. Young children may be able to count to 10, she says, but they won’t understand what that number means until they have time and space to manipulate 10 objects over and over again.
Even the one hour a week parents choose to spend in tutoring sessions would be better spent exposing a child to the basic math, science and language concepts around them, she says.
"Why not spend an hour a day outside? A child will learn a lot more about the world from dirt and water and sand than you would at a tutor, especially before they’re ready."
Parents still matter most
Even parents who choose not to send their children to a structured program are still trying to find the best ways to prepare their preschoolers. Some buy learning tools such as Hooked on Phonics or Leapfrog. Others use free resources like public library reading programs or PBS shows such as "Between the Lions."
McNamee concedes that parents naturally worry about how their child’s learning compares to others. This anxiety only increases when it comes time to select a kindergarten. While most schools don’t test entering kindergartners, many do conduct observational assessments to determine whether children have the comprehension skills needed to master more specific learning later on.
It can be tricky to find a balance between encouraging a child’s interest in learning and pushing too much, says Peggy Rios, a former Chicago teacher and mom of two preschoolers. Rios says she has introduced her children to concepts such as letter sounds bit by bit. Though it may not appear to be making an impact right away, she says, the accumulation of one minute here or there can add up.
The key, she says, is to follow the child’s lead. "If you really pay attention to what kids want and are interested in, then you’ll be doing what is developmentally appropriate."
With the onslaught of parenting books, advice and learning tools, McNamee says, some parents have lost confidence in their own parenting intuition. The best way parents can prepare their child for kindergarten, she says, is to simply give their time.
"There’s plenty of literature that says children will learn all they need to know about reading if parents read to children," she says. "The biggest advice parents need: Turn off the TV, read books, play games and interact as a family. Playing Candy Land, card games, counting pennies—it’s a lot more pleasurable than a tutoring session."
What the experts suggest
We asked parents, teachers, tutors and child development experts to offer tips on what can be done at home to help prepare children for kindergarten. Here’s what we learned:
Social and emotional
• Make sure children have lots of time to play with other children. (They can often learn more from each other than from us boring adults.)
• Provide simple toys or objects to facilitate their imaginations, such as pots and pans, blocks and scarves. The less an object is pre-defined, the more imagination is required.
• Sit some dolls and stuffed animals in a "learning circle" with your child and read books. Ask questions and have your child practice raising her hand to answer. Talk about the weather, the seasons, the days of the week.
• Make sure your child can button her coat, tie her shoes, open her lunch containers and remember to go to the bathroom on her own.
Math and science
• String wooden blocks or pasta necklaces into simple red-blue-red-blue patterns. As children get older they can create more complex patterns.
• Count everything, pointing to the objects or using fingers. Sort objects by color or size.
• Ask him to talk you through getting breakfast ready to understand sequencing. Do I pour the cereal first or the milk?
• Almost everything can be graphed, giving children a visual understanding of math. For example, use the stickers from fruit and place them in columns on a piece of paper. At the end of the week, you can count how many bananas, apples and pears have been eaten.
• Ask children to help you put the groceries away. They will practice sorting and experiment with how the big cereal boxes take up more room than the soup cans.
• Pour water into different-sized cups and talk about which cup will hold more.
• Help children learn geometry through hands-on activities, such as manipulating shape sorters or puzzles. Let them climb in and out of boxes, around furniture, going under, over, around and on top of different things to build spatial sense.
• Read to your child every day. Try chapter books so he understands the sequence of events. Ask questions and have him predict what will happen next.
• Allow story characters to become part of family life and discussions. (How many of us have described our child as acting out like Max from Where the Wild Things Are?)
• Start a word wall using felt, magnetic or paper letters. Each time the child learns someone’s name or an object, spell it on the board.
• Try to add in some alphabet knowledge whenever you can. Use pudding on wax paper as finger paint, making the outlines of a few letters before they get to lick their fingers.
• If she’s interested, teach your child to write her name and recite her address and phone number.
• Visit museums, historical sites and other venues to build a child’s vocabulary and understanding of the world. Even though a child may be able to read the word "fish," for example, seeing one swim in a tank or pond provides real comprehension.
Lisa Applegate is a mom and freelance writer living in Chicago.