Two Too Little?: Is Early Childhood Education Becoming Even Earlier?
Recently my two year old has been desperate to go to kindergarten. When we dropped her older sister off last week she said ‘Bye Mum’ and had a large tantrum when we tried to leave. Everyday last week she insisted that she have a packed lunch and a packed bag, just like her older sister. My eldest child sweetly made her a packed lunch, just she could be like ‘the big kids’. Third children seem to be in a hurry to grow up! I wasn’t planning to send her until next year, but I had a change of heart, and today she had her first official day at kindergarten. She ran into the kindergarten, farewelled me with confidence, and had a wonderful morning. She will attend two sessions a week, with her older sister (who attends four sessions a week). Maybe I’ll have a little cry, but I know that she is happy and well adjusted there.
Sending my two year old to kindergarten gives me the bonus of a little break. Let’s be honest. Many mothers need this. Including stay at home mothers. Especially if they have a very busy, demanding toddler, and no family in town. It’s easy to romanticize our children’s childhood – the idea that ‘make the most of it, it goes so fast, don’t be in too much of a rush to send them out the door.’ While there is indeed merit in this philosophy, a little break for parents can be so refreshing, enabling one to parent better. It really depends on the personality of the parent and the family dynamics. Of course, there are other ways of getting a break, such as a toddler swap with another parent.
There is no one size fits all for all children when it comes to preschool/kindergarten readiness. Based on the ideas of German educationalist Friedrich Frobel, kindergartens historically provided an early childhood environment for 3 and 4 year-olds. As enrolments and waiting lists have dropped, kindergartens have extended their welcome to children under three years of age, taking them into an environment that was often structured for older children in a larger group setting. This seems to have been contraversial among parents. In some circles there is quite alot of social pressure to avoid sending two year olds to kindergarten. In other circles, there may be the opposite pressure, and that is – to send a child to kindergarten before the parent feels their child is ready.
It’s hard to make decisions for our children, and it’s even harder knowing that you are judged for every decision that you make. Part of parenting is being confident in the decisions that we make for our children, and not worrying about what others think. This is very true in the area of education. Some parents send their children to daycare from an early age, others opt for kindergarten at age three or four. Sometimes it’s not a choice. Some parents home school, others opt for a state school or a special character school. In our discussion of the different options, let’s be considerate of one another’s choices, building bridges instead of walls.
Preschool/kindergarten readiness really seems to depend on the child, their developmental readiness, such as whether they are happy to be left, and their language skills. If a child can’t yet communicate their needs verbally, combined with the fact that they are being cared for in a group, this can sometimes contribute to stress, even in the most ideal setting. In general, the text books say that group socialization can be beneficial for a child of 3 or 4, but toddlers 2 years of age or younger do not need to socialize in a group setting. Occasional playdates, going to the park to feed the ducks, going to a playgroup or music group with mum/dad or a caregiver is plenty of social interaction for a child 2 and younger. Janet Lansbury, an early childhood expert says ‘Your presence is enough, it is more than enough’.
I know of many families who prefer not to start their children at kindergarten til they are three (the traditional age) or even four, and I respect this choice. I’ve always believed that parents are first educators and while the research confirms that early childhood education benefits children, many children are happy to be at home with a parent til they are three or four. If this suits the child and the parent, the child will only benefit.
For many families, group care is a necessity because many mothers need or wish to return to work. Please don’t think that I’m critcising parents who place their child in childcare. I attended a creche when I was two and I loved it (not that I remember, but my mother recalls that I relished it!). Each family has different circumstances. Some two year olds are stressed by being left in kindergarten (as was the case for my first child, a boy), whereas others are happy to attend and are therefore not likely to be harmed by a session at kindergarten. My two daughters have loved attending kindergarten from the age of two.
But it is interesting that age 2 is now considered the time to begin preschool/kindergarten in some circles. It used to be 3 to 3 ½. Children aren’t maturing any faster now, but are we expecting them to be ready to begin education in a group setting earlier? Are we pushing our children to grow up too fast?
Many experts suggest that a later start to kindergarten/preschool is optimal for children. There is much development that takes place between two and three and that three or older is an ideal age. Children of this age have a command of language and are usually toilet trained. Separation is usually a little easier. Girls are often more verbal and independent at a younger age than boys, and therefore more ready for kindergarten, but I don’t wish to generalize. It also depends on the ratios in the preschool or kindergarten. The kindergarten that my children attend has a 1:6 ratio, whereas some kindergartens may only have a 1:!5 ratio which may not be ideal for two year olds.
David Elkind (psychologist, author of “The Hurried Child”) believes a later start is better. “Each child grows at his own natural pace and in his own time. It means respecting the child’s developmental level and not pushing him into school before he is ready. From a developmental view, it is understood that there is as much as a two-year difference in the development of children. Boys, in particular, are slower to develop than girls. A bright child may appear capable intellectually, but may have physical, social or emotional immaturity that would make it beneficial to spend more time at home” (“What is a Good Preschool Education?” Lois Robbert, UCLA 1984)’
The Teaching Research and Learning Initiative in NZ has recently researched ‘Under-3-year-olds in Kindergarten: Children’s Experiences and Teachers’ Practices.’ (See: http://www.tlri.org.nz). What the researchers found in this study was that two-year-olds quickly accepted and adopted the behaviours of “being a kindy kid”, doing what was expected of them in their new environment. They fitted into the rules and routines of the environment, they developed skills and confidence, and approached social relationships with adults and other children with a variety of experience and eagerness.
The research also discovered that two-year-olds who already had a sibling at kindergarten adjusted more smoothly to the environment than children who had no previous contact. Having a friend also made a positive difference to how comfortable 2-year-olds felt at kindergarten and the amount of sustained interaction that occurred among peers. Likewise, children’s previous experience of kindergarten influenced whether or not they were happy and confident there and acquired the “community of practice” of the kindergarten readily.
In the physical environment these children faced challenges due to their smaller stature. Having longer legs would have helped in navigating swings, steps, and furniture. In the social environment with peers and adults, two year olds needed to learn the rules of the game. Some routines (such as mat time and afternoon tea time) took time for two year olds to adjust to. The presence of parents or other non-teaching adults was helpful in guiding children through these experiences.
Two-year-olds often used nonverbal forms of communication that could be missed by teachers in the busy kindergarten atmosphere. Children liked to touch base with teachers and sought to be near them. The researchers also observed that the 2-year-olds gravitated to the teachers and often needed to know where they were in the environment.
These are interesting findings. While there does seem to be a trend to encourage earlier starts in early childhood education, for some children two doesn’t seem to be too little. For others, they may benefit from a later start. As parents we need to trust our instincts. Whenever you decide to start your child in early childhood education, whether at two, three or four, we need to be certain and confident about our decision, knowing with conviction that we are choosing the right time and place. That will make the transition much easier for the child and the parent.