ANGELA RANKE: Back when I was a tiny tot, preschool was all about playing with dolls, painting and making noodle necklaces. I didn’t even know how to write my name. These days prep is a completely different ball game where kids are expected to write sentences, read up to 60 sight words, count money, do basic fractions and learn subjects including SOSE and geography.
Now on one hand you could argue this is a good thing, we’re giving kids a head start in life and setting them on the path to success. On the other hand, too much focus on testing and scholastic learning might not leave enough room for other important areas like free play and socialising.
Mary McDonald* has been an early years teacher for more than 15 years and has noticed a shift in expectations since the new national curriculum was introduced last year.
“Prep is more like the beginning of Year 2,” she says. “The expectation of prep is just as high as end of Year 1 when I was teaching it six years ago.”
Ms McDonald says prep teachers at her school used to have six months to help students adjust to the routine and expectations of school, for example where to eat lunch and learning how to listen and share with others. Teachers did not start testing until term four when students had well and truly settled in to school life. Now, teachers are only given two weeks to get the students school ready and testing begins almost immediately.
The testing for reading, numeracy and writing is all happening too soon, she says, before many children are developmentally ready to reach these standards.
“You’re pushing kids who aren’t ready to do it,” she says.
“They’re not ready to learn letters and sounds, they’re not ready to get sight words or sentences and you’re pushing them the whole time.
“So you’re getting kids who are frustrated because they can’t do it and you’re getting a lot of angry kids, a lot of emotional kids.”
The flip side of all this focus on academic testing is that less time is available for free play.
Ms Mcdonald says her students aren’t allowed to play outside during class hours (excepting physical education) unless she can demonstrate it meets the learning objectives set out in the curriculum.
“You can’t just take them down to the playground because they do that at lunch time, you’ve got to have intent,” she says.
“That’s what’s happening with national curriculum: the push for reading, writing, number and science is doing away with play including gross motor and fine motor.”
This is a problem on many levels. The benefits of play are well documented in literature. Studies have shown that free play teaches children a plethora of important skills, such as pretence (pretending something is something else), turn-taking, sharing, problem solving, theory of mind (seeing something from someone else’s point of view) and meta-representation (something can represent something else).
Outdoor or physical play is also critical to children’s development: they practice and fine-tune hand-eye coordination, muscle tone and reflexes just to name a few.
Lisa Clarke* is a pediatric occupational therapist who spends a lot of time working with young children in schools.
She says pushing children to learn a skill before they’re developmentally ready can sometimes result in challenges down the track.
Take writing, for example. She says OTs often get referrals for children in grade two and three who are struggling with handwriting.
They were taught how to write in prep but they weren’t yet ready to learn correct formation and positioning of letters at such a young age, so now they’re having problems a couple of years later.
Ms Clarke uses the example of going into a school to observe a boy teachers and parents believed may have had an underlying behavioural problem to illustrate the point: “It’s not that he’s a naughty boy; it’s just that he doesn’t understand what to do. In that situation he has to do something so he talks to other kids, rocks on his chair or leaves the classroom because it’s too overwhelming for him.”
She says children are getting labelled way too quickly with learning difficulties: “This little boy I’m working with was diagnosed with a reading and learning disability. Now he’s passed all expectations. He just wasn’t ready three months ago.”
The pressure to meet the curriculum and pass students on the criteria set out in the curriculum is enormous. No teacher wants to fail a student; it reflects badly on him/her and no parent wants to be told his/her child can’t graduate to grade 1.
Ms McDonald says this leads to huge stress for teachers, some of whom end up teaching to the test, rather than to the students’ needs, or worse still cheating to fudge the test results so it looks like students are doing better than they actually are.
Needless to say, it also creates a great deal of stress for parents and students as they struggle to meet expectations.
Ms Clarke says she often receives referrals for children struggling with anxiety brought on by school testing.
Sarah Roberts is mum to four-year-old Braedan, who just finished prep last year. She says it’s been a stressful time: “Kids can’t be kids anymore. The pressure is just huge. Braedan is totally with it socially but he’s struggled a bit with writing. But, I mean, he’s only four!”
Sarah says like most boys his age, Braedan has a lot of energy and likes to run around. But ever since he’s started prep he hasn’t been given much opportunity to do that: “He only gets half-an-hour of gross motor a week,” Sarah said. “He’s stuck inside sitting at a desk most of the time.”
The lack of exercise for her son and his peers has led Sarah, who is a boxing coach, to start a class for young children. “They’re not developing the skills they should be at that age, things like muscle tone, hand-eye coordination, reflexes, they’re just not there,” she says.
The national curriculum has only been operating for a year and like all new systems it will take time to get used to. But clearly, some tweaking and modifications are needed.
Ms McDonald believes children should not be tested until at least the second semester of prep to allow them time to adjust to school life. In addition, prep, which is currently not compulsory, should be made so.
She says there should be more direct focus on social and emotional development in the curriculum and Ms Clarke agrees.
She says it’s important to recognise that children develop at their own pace, it doesn’t always mean there’s underlying problems if they can’t write at age four.
Sometimes a little slice of fun and free time is just what the doctor ordered.