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The Fear of Falling Behind

Courtney Rennicke, Ph.D.As the mad dash to complete dissertation-sized applications for two’s and three’s programs quiets down and the transitional fog of September lifts, the juggling act of family life during the academic year begins. Children’s backpacks gradually begin to swell in size, as do the rosters of afterschool activities, sports, clubs, and tutors. Many of you dutifully and lovingly support your child’s academically rigorous and activity enriched lifestyle with some wistful regret at times that your child might not get enough time just to be a child.

“Kindergartners in New York and Los Angeles spend nearly three hours per day on reading and math instruction and test prep, and less than half an hour each day on ‘choice time’ or play. Those same kids probably don’t get much time to play dress-up or make-believe outside of school either. In fact, children today have eight fewer hours of free, unstructured playtime a week than they had 20 years ago – time lost to organized sports, video games and educational computer programs among other activities.”

-Lea Winerman, Monitor on Psychology, September 2009

This nostalgia for simpler times is generally countered with the reality of being a parent in the New York City private school system, who would be remiss not to cultivate and tally up the accomplishments on their child’s growing resume. Informational sessions about private school admissions in New York City often directly state that this two’s program leads to this elementary school, which leads to this high school, which leads to this elite university and the unspoken keys to the kingdom. The pressure to keep your children on this track and competitive with their peers can knock even the most even-keeled parent off balance at times. Bear with the hyperbole for just a moment, but just as some might say the Republicans have used fear politically to gain support for their decisions to go to war in Iraq or to alter privacy rights, it seems at times like the New York City private schools collectively use the fear of your child falling behind as their rallying cry for higher and higher academic standards that are expected to be reached faster and faster in your child’s development.

If all of this focus on academic rigor and extracurricular activities was engendering happier, brighter children, I think we would all be delighted, but it seems something fundamental to childhood and healthy development is falling behind, the joy and organic educational power of play.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., a child development researcher at Temple University,

“found no differences in academic achievement by first grade between children who had gone to “academic preschools versus those who’d gone to more play-oriented preschools. She did, however, find that the children from academic preschools were more anxious.”

-Lea Winerman, Monitor on Psychology, September 2009

“Kindergarten has ceased to be a garden of delight and has become a place of stress and distress,” warned a report released in March by a research group called the Alliance for Childhood, which is advised by some of the country’s most esteemed progressive-education scholars. There is now too much testing and too little free time, the report argues, and kids are being forced to try to read before they are ready.

-Paul Tough, New York Times Magazine, September 27, 2009

As we collectively watch American test scores plummet and SAT scores at elite universities skyrocket, the panic about children falling behind and healthy desires to remediate this by ensuing that our children will be competitive in the global marketplace has perhaps nervously blinded parents and educators to information that we know is true of healthy children’s development.

“Parents and educators are ignoring decades of evidence that young children learn best through active, exploratory play (sometimes guided by an adult) rather than through direct, lecture style classroom instruction, flash cards and push-button computer learning toys that can push them to memorize facts they’re not cognitively ready to understand.”

-Lea Winerman, Monitor on Psychology, September 2009

There is a movement by educators like Deborah Leong, Ph.D. and Elena Bodrova, Ph.D., founders of Tools of the Mind, an early childhood curriculum for preschool and kindergarten children based out of the Metropolitan State College of Denver, to purposefully infuse play back into classrooms. Leong and Bodrova, who are adherents to Lev Vygotsky’s works on child development, believe that certain kinds of play are central to the development of executive functioning and self-regulation skills, which are skills that help organize thinking, make future oriented plans, hold important details from information in your short-term memory, and to focus your mind on the task at hand by avoiding distractions.

Vygotsky maintained that at 4 or 5, a child’s ability to play creatively with other children was in fact a better gauge of her future academic success than any other indicator, including her vocabulary, her counting skills or her knowledge of the alphabet. Dramatic play, he said, was the training ground where children learned to regulate themselves, to conquer their own unruly minds.

But not just any play. The necessary ingredient is what Leong and Bodrova call “mature dramatic play”: complex, extended make-believe scenarios, involving multiple children and lasting for hours, even days. If you want to succeed in school and in life, they say, you first need to do what [young children at their school] have done every school day for the past two years: spend hour after hour dressing up in firefighter hats and wedding gowns, cooking make-believe hamburgers and pouring nonexistent tea, doing the hard, serious work of playing pretend.

-Paul Tough, New York Times Magazine, September 27, 2009

This mature dramatic play appears to give children an understandable framework for which to practice social skills, numerical concepts, and vocabulary, as well as strengthen their executive functioning and self-regulatory skills in an intuitive and more effective fashion than traditional didactic instruction.

Bodrova and Leong drew on research conducted by some of Vygotsky’s followers that showed that children acting out a dramatic scene can control their impulses much better than they can in nonplay situations. In one experiment, 4-year-old children were first asked to stand still for as long as they could. They typically did not make it past a minute. But when the kids played a make-believe game in which they were guards at a factory, they were able to stand at attention for more than four minutes.

-Paul Tough, New York Times Magazine, September 27, 2009

So next time the private school fear mongers make you reach for a set of flashcards or you find yourself booking your child for another educational activity, it might be a moment to step back and reflect on how your child is spending their time and learning. It might be a moment to put down the educational videogame and put on a tutu, brandish a faux sword, or don a magician’s cape and delve deeply into the rich work of playing with your child.

About the Contributor: Courtney Rennicke, Ph.D. is an advisory team member and regular contributor to the NYC Private Schools Blog in the area of parenting and child development.

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