There is no doubt that reading is a skill that all children need to learn, and it seems understandable that teaching children to read as young as possible would be desirable.
While this is the approach in America, in Finland there is a very different attitude to early learning. Australia probably sits somewhere in the middle of these varying styles, but it is fascinating to reflect, not only on how children learn in different parts of the world, but also the importance of play and engendering a sense of wonder and joy from an early age.
American teacher Tim Walker compares the differences between American and Finnish kindergartens and finds the American kindergarten experience has become more academic at the expense of play.
In his article The joyful, illiterate kindergartners of Finland he finds there has been a major focus on academia at kindergarten level in the US.
He quotes education-policy researcher Daphna Bassok, who led a team of researchers at the University of Virginia in a study analysing survey responses from American kindergarten teachers between 1998 and 2010.
“Almost every dimension that we examined had major shifts over this period towards a heightened focus on academics, and particularly a heightened focus on literacy, and within literacy, a focus on more advanced skills than what had been taught before,” Bassok said.
In the study, the percentage of kindergarten teachers who reported that they agreed (or strongly agreed) that children should learn to read in kindergarten greatly increased from 30 percent in 1998 to 80 percent in 2010.
Interestingly, what Bassok and her colleagues found, is that while time spent on literacy in American kindergarten classrooms went up, time spent on arts, music, and child-selected activities (like station time) significantly dropped. Teacher-directed instruction also increased, revealing what Bassok described as “striking increases in the use of textbooks and worksheets… and very large increases in the use of assessments.”
According to Tim Walker, the differences between the US and Finland, where he has taught junior primary students for the last two years, is stark. Finnish schools have received significant media attention for the strong performance of their 15-year old students, but little has been reported about younger students. Visiting a Finnish kindergarten he found that pre-school children spend most of the day playing and are not pressured to read.
“Children learn so well through play,” Anni-Kaisa Osei Ntiamoah, one of the preschool’s “kindergarten” teachers, who is in her seventh year in the classroom, told Tim. “They don’t even realize that they are learning because they’re so interested in what they’re doing.”
“When children play,” Osei Ntiamoah continued, “They’re developing their language, math, and social-interaction skills.
A recent research summary The Power of Play supports her findings: “In the short and long term, play benefits cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development…When play is fun and child-directed, children are motivated to engage in opportunities to learn,” the researcher concluded.
Osei Ntiamoah’s colleagues all seemed to share her enthusiasm for play-based learning, as did the school’s director, Maarit Reinikka: “It’s not a natural way for a child to learn when the teacher says, ‘Take this pencil and sit still.’”
According to Walker, the play is organised in two ways.
“I noticed that the kindergartners played in two different ways: One was spontaneous and free form (like the boys building dams), while the other was more guided and pedagogical (like the girls selling ice cream),” he said.
In fact, Walker says that Finland requires its kindergarten teachers to offer playful learning opportunities to every kindergartner on a regular basis, according to Arja-Sisko Holappa, the developer of pre-primary curriculum for the Finnish National Board of Education.
“Play is a very efficient way of learning for children,” Holappa told Walker. “And we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy. There’s an old Finnish saying,” she said. “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.”
While the reason for the increasing academic styled early education in the US could be the need to bridge the growing gap between America’s rich and poor, studies at a New Zealand University show this could be a flawed approach.
Research by Sebastian Suggate, a former Ph.D. candidate at New Zealand’s University of Otago studying educational psychology, compared children from Rudolf Steiner schools – who typically begin to read at the age of seven – with children at state-run schools in New Zealand, who start reading at the age of five. By age 11, students from the former group caught up with their peers in the latter, demonstrating equivalent reading skills.
“This research then raises the question,” Suggate said in an interview published by the University of Otago. “If there aren’t advantages to learning to read from the age of five, could there be disadvantages to starting teaching children to read earlier?”