Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

A Response to Susie


The lovely Susie tagged me to respond to her post Is Preschool killing children?, where she discusses the fact that in the USA preschool (which is what we in Germany call kindergarten and in the UK is nursery school) is becoming ever more academic. In her words,

I avoid this topic like the plague. Kids need to play, explore, and build their imaginations, and preschools that put an emphasis on reading, math and handwriting steal those opportunities from kids. My statement usually incites anger and probably fear, in parents who’ve already justified the decision that their child needs to build elementary skills while in preschool, and have already spent a few happy months in a preschool that is doing just that. Plus, they are already financially and emotionally invested in the school and its teachers, and even though the child is only three, the family thinks its too late to turn back now. And besides, they believe, I am wrong.

We are extremely lucky in Germany that childhood is protected by late school-entry. Our second daughter will start school this year at six and ten months. By the time she is seven, she will be able to do only the most basic of reading. But I can safely predict that by the time she is eight, she will be a sophisticated reader in two languages, completely on a par with any US or UK eight-year-old. I’ve seen it happen. I strongly believe that early learning does not create academic advantage. By the time these six- and seven-year-olds reach school they are dying to learn, practically hyperventilating with the excitement of it all, and they catch up fast.

Having said that, kindergartens in Germany are under pressure from parents to be more than places where little Franka and Finn go to do finger-painting, jump around to music and hang out with their pals. I have been at PTA meetings where their teachers are harangued because the children are not being “challenged enough”. Our kindergarten has introduced optional English, after the exercise of parental pressure. I would not be surprised if, in the next few years, kindergartens will start to be compelled to introduce basic writing and numeracy skills. If that happened, I would be sad.

I have loved having the privilege of raising my kids in a society where childhood is still protected and nurtured. My kids are comparatively innocent: they have never been to MacDonalds, they don’t know that Bratz exist, they haven’t watched High School Musical and, while they like clothes, they don’t wear any horrible scary approximations of adult attire. It’s such a relief to live in society that facilitates these parenting decisions, and helps me to keep them innocent for as long as possible. My kids like to ride bikes, swim, play complicated games of their own making, to craft and to dance. I love the richness of their play, and I would hate academic pressure and the social pressure that comes with that to intrude.

Why is it happening, though, even in Germany? Why are parents putting pressure on kindergarten to challenge their kids? I think it’s the increasingly middle-class-ization of society (speaking as a paid-up member): kids need academic skills to survive junior school, so that they can get into Gymnasium (the academic stream), hence into university and from there into good jobs. And every middle-class parent has the unspoken anxiety that if their child doesn’t start learning to read and write at four, then there’s no chance of her getting a good job at 24. Which is of course, rubbish.

So to respond to Susie, I can’t say that kindergarten is killing childhood, but I see the potential for it happening here. I remain remain intensely grateful it has not happened yet and that German society is still wise enough to protect and cherish childhood.

For more on the US perspective, see the also-lovely Yogamum’s response to Susie’s question.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

19 thoughts on “A Response to Susie

  1. I don’t have kids yet, but this is still a fascinating subject for me. There has to be a balance somewhere, and I suppose if one’s chosen school doesn’t strike it (sometimes we don’t have *too* much choice in schools), it’s up to parents to make up for it. And I really hope that childhood isn’t dead for my future kid by the time I have them. That’d be a real shame for both of us.

  2. I completely agree. I’m baffled when people start haranguing me to get my daughter signed up for a nursery school, and she’s not even two yet! I don’t want her to be going to a half day of ‘school’ when she’s only three, I think it’s crazy. I guess the only appeal of it is that I would have more time to myself at home and therefore more time to write and earn some money. But preserving her childhood and instilling a real love of learning in her is way more important than me having a bit of peace and quiet every day, or earning a few more quid.

  3. I find it fascinating how variable the age of starting school is, and how little difference it seems to make. I can imagine that learning to read would be much much faster if everyone was totally ready for it as your daughter will be.

    Here in Australia we start at 5 (on average) and learning to read does seem much harder for most kids than the experience you describe.

  4. Ms Espresso, I hope the same for your child. In my experience, Europe is generally quite respectful of childhood, but as you say you might find you have to shop around for the right kind of kindergarten. I believe the Waldorf schools are excellent about being child-focused.

    Amity, I know and I admire you for sticking by your guns when the temptation to have a few hours off is probably huge. I think that the early nursery system and early school-age in England is entirely parent-focused and very little to do with the needs of children. At 8, my oldest is never home from school later than 1.30 – she has the entire afternoon to play and dream (and do some homework!).

    Ms Penguin, nice to hear from you! I find the readiness here amazing. Although the downside is that since most of the kids are older, they require hardcore training in how to behave in a classroom – they’ve been hanging out in the KG playground since they were three and don’t understand the rules too well. The first year of school seems to be a type of kid-wrangling, but once they get the idea, they’re off!

  5. Well, I can certainly speak about the Waldorf perspective: young children under 7 develop crucial “skills” from simply playing and being in a home-like atmosphere. Recent research has shown that in addition to the fact that young children are not neurologically developed for early reading, other functions such as balance and fine-motor skills have a great impact on future intellectual abilities. So, Waldorf kindergartens are all about developing those kinds of skills. Waldorf students don’t learn to read until age 7-9, typically, and while they do lag behind their peers in mainstream schools at that age, by the time they are 10-12 they are comparable or superior across the board. The other more long-term benefit I see with Waldorf is that children aren’t turned off to learning by early frustration and compulsion. They love it, as you have experienced with the German school system.

    There are other, more esoteric reasons that Waldorf schools don’t do early reading/learning (e.g., the belief that too-early intellectual stimulation will directly and adversely affect physical and emotional development) but the overall reasoning is that the Waldorf method encourages children to grow and learn in a balanced way, to become well-rounded human beings. Over-intellectualizing doesn’t achieve that.

    I think schools are pressured to measure and promote “achievement” in younger children because Western culture is very materialistic. Instead of hoping that our children will become happy, healthy people, we worry that they won’t make enough money or become successful.

    I have my kids in a Waldorf/Lifeways home daycare, where they simply play and do crafts. I’m so grateful for that! I struggle with what Noble Savage mentioned, that I am trading my kids being home with me for earning some money. Beyond the money aspect, I found that I’m just not a very good mom if I don’t have my own work to do part of the time, and since we live near a Waldorf school I can provide a nurturing environment for my kids. But there is certainly no social pressure here to do so.

  6. Pingback: Is Preschool Killing Childhood? A Response « yoga gumbo

  7. I don’t know. I’m conflicted. Both of my kids went to preschool (just two short mornings a week at the age of three and three short mornings at the age of four). I didn’t care if they “learned” academic stuff; I started them so that they could have supervised play time with kids, get used to being away from home, etc. And I have to say that the kids who had been to preschool were SO much more confident in those first weeks of kindergarten. They already got the routine, they were ready to go.

    As for learning to read, I wasn’t trying to teach them prior to kindergarten because I thought that their teacher would have some magical formula, some “right way” of doing it, but I loved how at their preschool, the concept of letters and sounds and words was integrated. It was just for fun. The parent would bring a snack that started with a “k” during “k week,” that kind of thing.

    But both of my kids picked up on that naturally and for them, learning to read was effortless and a natural extension of all that exposure to the alphabet. I was literally trying to hold them back a bit, make them wait until school started but both of them just pointed at a word one day at the age of four and calmly told me that they knew what it said. And then it was like a ball rolling downhill after that.

    And then school was always easy for them. They have never struggled like so many other kids I see do. They sail! Was it preschool? Home environment? I don’t know. But our experience with preschool was wonderful, not competitive or joyless at all. Our kids were definitely still innocent, creative kids.

  8. Another interesting post. A subject, on which, I have also spent time and worry. In some ways I have a second chance to ‘do it right’ – if there is such a thing in parenting. With daughters 14 years apart. Miss (currently 6) did the wonderful pre-school in Sydney – zoomed into school – could read (without much coaxing from me, other than I have a hard and fast rule of reading aloud to my children EVERY night) – we just spent a month in Germany and within 3 days she slipped into incredible German (so all the good work had paid off) – and now she has zoomed ahead half a year without so much as a wrinkle. But (and if you see the post I wrote tonight) I have always tried to allow my girls to ‘just play’…. get dirty… ‘here is a bucket of water’….. a tub of sand… some paint.. a couple of cardboard boxes… — I have tried to hold back on too many structured activities in the early years. As parents we do the best we can with what we have. Many of us are luckier than others to have access to skills and time. Let the kids play, I say.

  9. As far as I was concerned, learning to read WAS ‘building my imagination’. Once I got the hang of it, it opened up a world of marvels that informed just about everything else. It’s like learning a musical instrument – the basics are mechanical and boring – but the rewards, given what you can do once you master them, are infinite….So I’d say get them reading as early as possible. It’s wonderful. Sorry.

  10. As a daughter who was shipped off to school at two and practically dying to do anything but learn in yet another institution at the end of 6th form (at 17 and had to lie my way out of it, unfortunately, because my family is not only middle-class but was then in the so-called “developing” world which has its own hangups) reading your post brought such relief (even though you’re not my Mum ;)). I wonder if it’s too late to learn German…

  11. Dudelet’s at nursery/pre-school fultime now (9:15 to 3:15). It’s very play centered, very child-focused though many of the parents are vibratingly ambitious and competitive. But the school is ruled by a much-admired and very forceful headmistress with constructively old-fashioned views about learning. We’ve been led by dudelet, really – he was so ready for it. It fits nicely with the new baby but he’s suddenly waving to people in the park, playing in little gangs of people he knows for the first time out of school hours when previously, he’d be playing by himself or needing us to tag around after him. So I can only see the upside for him at the moment. But I’m dreading ‘real’ school.

    Reading – he’s starting to pick it up himself. We’ll answer questions and shout encouragement but I’m not going to push him in this. The school is slowly and gently leading them into literacy and I’m happy that the tempo of learning is proportionate to his age (4) and needs.

  12. Charlotte, you seem to have hit a vein of interst with this topic.

    My son (now 17) entered primary school three weeks short of his seventh birthday. Late, but not terribly so by German standards, ancient by most American and British standards. Yet, amazingly, at 17 he can read and write, think, create, program, and socialize with the best of them. He is curious, resilient, inventive, and humorous. He also learns more outside of the classroom than inside. I find that sad, but I trust all of the aforementioned attributes to help him along his way.

    We’ve got to realize that this generation of children will succeed in life through creative and constructive use of their minds and talents, not through excelling in formal learning situations.

  13. What a relief! Germans still respect childhood, but will some of the parents win in that sway towards earlier accountability? I would hope with such a long, deep tradition in respecting childhood that giving children time to play will be hard to “undo.”

    I’m envious of the 6 and 7 year olds who are hungry to read — and have done no phonics worksheets in their past. I say that, as my two of my children saw the whole phonics thing at 5 and 6 as laborious and too intense. They would have much rather sit beside me while I opened a book of fairy tales. They feel behind.. but by 9, they were on par. But the pressure “falling behind” brought was not pleasant for any of us.

    Did you know we do have kindergarten. It’s our official first year of school, and it starts at age 5-6, after two previous years of “optional?” (at this point, mandatory) preschool. When I was 5, in 1967, kindergarten was optional and there was no such thing as preschool. I did go to kindergarten — and I remember getting in trouble because I refused to share my scissors!

  14. I think reading early is GREAT! I started very late with my two girls, and wish I’d started earlier. Their little brother is one and he loves looking at the phonics on No pressure, just fun because reading can be so much fun. We love the library, we love books… what’s wrong with that?? Learning doesn’t have to be pressured. My girls loved loved loved their two and a half hours of preschool when they were 3 and 4. They learned socialization through play. Crafts, dress-up, songs, stories, snacks. Nothing wrong with that. It depends on each child. It’s not whether they go to school or not, or learn to read or not – it’s about enjoying learning and having time to play and relax too.

  15. Henitserk, thanks for coming by and giving the Waldorf perspective. I really admire the way it is so attuned to the needs of children. I think you’re right about the specific pressures of Western society.

    Diana, I think there’s no preventing the process of learning to read once it’s underway. How lucky you were that it was so easy for your children and that school in general comes easily to them. And how lovely that they had a good preschool experience.

    Thanks Lynda. You have got an interest model there, with children 14 years apart. That must afford opportunities for comparison!

    OmegaMum, there’s no doubt that reading is wonderful and builds imagination. You operate within the UK system, so kids are going to learn to read earlier than in the US or Germany. That’s just how it is. I think what Susie was saying in her post was that the pressure to learn early can put some kids off learning forever. Do you see that in the UK? Are there some kids who don’t respond to early reading and writing skills? That take a long time to catch up? Who never catch up? If so, maybe these are kids who might have benefitted from not having to acquire academic skills at such an early age.

    Imani, what a horror! School at two! That’s unimaginable. And for learning German, not too late …

    (Un)Relaxeddad, you seem to have hit on a lucky find in your dudelet’s school. As I said to OmegaMum, you are in the British system and it’s pretty difficult to opt out, so you have managed to find a school that teaches the skills gently, which is wonderful.

    Lia, you made me laugh. He can read at 17? A miracle! I love what you say,
    “We’ve got to realize that this generation of children will succeed in life through creative and constructive use of their minds and talents, not through excelling in formal learning situations.” I think that’s inspiring.

    Susie, not a phonics worksheet in sight! I also hope German society continues to respect childhood and allow children to remain children as it does. As for the US kindergarten, I did know about it, and it used to confuse me but now I see it’s not quite comparable. In Germany, it’s the three to four years before kids go to school – the years depend on how early they start KG (some as early as two, some – like my boy – will go at 3 1/2) and how late they start school.

    Hi Watermelonmama and welcome! I think we all agree that some form of preschool is great for kids, allowing them to play, craft and socialize. The question that Susie raised was, is it good for kids to be forced to undergo an academic curriculum at preschool, when they should be focusing on playing, crafting and socializing? We are also a book family, and although only one out of my three is a reader, we all love visiting the library, reading and being read to. My two youngest can lose hours paging through their books, even though they don’t read a word! They all fall asleep with books clutched to their chests. I love it that they love their books so much.

  16. Oh, this was a tough one for me. As a single parent, my son was in day-care/nursery school from an early age out of necessity. Once he was 5, it became more like ‘school’, but in a gentle, fun way. However, this was because of the place I chose; there was pressure at other places for kids to be ‘learning’ at ages 3 & 4. Because of his birthday and a late age start for formal (e.g., state required) education (which has changed now where I live) he didn’t start kindergarten until he was 6 and 1st grade at age 7. In Kindergarten, he was frustrated by ‘math readiness skills’ (yes, that’s what they called them! No wonder he hated them!). He already knew how to add and simple multiplication. When he started primary school, he was one of a handful of children who was not reading yet. The teacher assured the parents that all the kids would be reading chapter books by January — and they were! It was exciting to see that skill develop so rapidly. He started an engineering program this year at age 19, but he is rather burnt out on academics. I encouraged him to take a gap year, but that has not caught on here in the States and he would have lost his scholarship eligibility (and health insurance, child support, and some tax breaks, etc) if he had done so. Too bad! Maybe he’ll take a year off before he starts working full-time, but I’m afraid there is no getting off the merry-go-round.

  17. Ooh, a subject so close to my heart. I taught preschool for many years and was a daycare director for a while. I have nothing against children going to preschool…however because of my experience in the field, I chose to keep my kids home during the preschool years. My kids are 3 and 5 years old.
    I often laugh at well-meaning people who are just horrified that my kids are not in preschool. What about the socialization? That always seems to be the question. I haven’t even mentioned to my family that I intend to homeschool my son during Kinder.

    What have I done all these years? We’ve baked alot. Just ask my son and he’ll be happy to tell you all the ingredients that go into a Madeline. We sing…not just preschool stuff. The kids are well versed in the Beatles, Pink Martini and other various artists. We dance, we build forts, we play with star wars figures and spaceships. We play video games, we laugh, we argue, we resolve differences, we shop, we love getting wet in the summer, we ride our bikes and skip rocks in the river. Sometimes we even watch T.V. (I know, shame on me.)

    Currently we are watching our caterpillars grow to epic porportions and anxiously await for them to build their cacoons and turn into beautiful butterflies.

    At five, my son is learning to read, because he is curious and want to know stuff. He can write his name and simple words. He can add by one and knows that 2 plus 2 equals four. All this without even trying. They have a close unit of friends that range from age 18 mos to 10 years.

    Everyday they play more and more on their own and need my presence less. Too soon they will be out on their own. Now is my time, and I’m so enjoying it.

  18. What a difficult subject! Honestly? I think parents who love and support their kids will raise successful kids in school no matter when they begin.

    Parents who are agonizing over the preschool decision and are financially invested in it are lucky that they have so many options available to them, I guess.

    We struggled with whether to do daycare or preschool and over what curriculum was most appropriate for our children’s age and personality.

    But I also recognized that my children were lucky to be growing up in a family with literate parents who love to read to them at night and who buy them art supplies and that there are many many children who don’t have this exposure ever and so for them, perhaps a more academic preschool is important. It made me a bit more humble about my self-indulgent whining.

    And I am not saying that as a judgement statement, I just think that I am lucky to be able to make the choice at all, and the fact that I can choose is an important factor in my children’s ability to feel confident in their learning, preschool or not (and we’ve done it both ways).

  19. Thanks for the welcome, Charlotte. I see what you mean. I was referring to some of the comments more than the article. I’m in Canada where preschool is pretty easy-going and fun, but I’ve heard of the competitive nature of preschool in the States. It’s also pretty rigorous in Mexico where my kids were born. It’s one of the reasons why we moved back here – too much rote memorization and technical work… my kids were in shock after having had so much fun in preschool here in Canada. I also remember going to preschool in Taiwan and having to sit on our hands to learn discipline. So sad when learning is no longer fun or stimulating, isn’t it?
    I love that my kids love their books so much too!
    Take care.

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