People keep asking why we should expand subsidized preschool when kids from Finland don’t start school until age seven and seem to turn out pretty damned functional. I agree it’s a puzzle. How can preschool be the best investment a society can make when there are children from a variety of backgrounds and cultures who manage just fine without it? (And note that I’m speaking here of the educational benefit of preschool to children. Let’s leave aside just for a moment the equally important issue of child care for working parents. What to do with kids while their parents work is an overlapping but nonetheless distinct issue.)
So how can preschool be so essential for so many kids and yet unnecessary (or even malignant!) for others? The answer is so simple it’s staring us in the face, but we don’t talk much about it for fear of causing offence or stating the obvious. Of course, we all grudgingly acknowledge that “environment” matters when it comes to early childhood. (And I’m not talking about global warming.) We all know in some abstract way that the young child’s environment – parental love and stability, material comfort, cognitive stimulation, and so on – is a key predictor of healthy development. But now I’m going to go a step further. The environment in which a young child grows is the child’s curriculum. It is in fact the only educational curriculum that matters.
The ersatz curriculum we’re so obsessed with these days – the dopey, isolated, uni-dimensional skills and “outcomes” we compulsively track on check lists – that’s all just a proxy (and a really, really bad one) for the ‘real’ early childhood curriculum, which is the environment that supports higher order cognitive and emotional development: hands-on exploration, emotional connection, curiosity, inquiry, imagination, language, problem-solving, and self regulation. And that curriculum – in contrast to the blunted, stunted, miniaturized business we call pedagogy these days – can be found anywhere. The authentic early childhood curriculum isn’t necessarily contained in the word we reflexively call “preschool.” It doesn’t need to be in a school at all. You can find it under a moss covered tree stump in the woods. In a parent’s arms. On a noisy playground, hiding behind a book in the library, or in a warm bed. In fact, it often isn’t found anywhere near schools.
Once we accept that, “the environment is the curriculum,” we can begin to understand how those pesky Scandinavians, who forgo academic learning for what seems like eons, still manage to kick our assess on virtually every academic achievement test. They’re winning, and we’re losing, because they’ve avoided the “Pathetically Narrow Curriculum” rabbit hole that the Americans and British have hurled themselves down headfirst.
In fact, a lot of kids don’t “need” the Anglo-American style, highly academic early childhood curriculum. (And a more depressing truth is that quite a lot are actually harmed by it.) They would surely be better served getting their exploration and inquiry and emotional connections and reading ‘readiness’ elsewhere: in an enlightened, play-based child care center, for example, or from competent parents or from frequent contact with other loving caregivers.
I think this explains how those sneaky Finns can delay formal reading instruction until age seven. It’s delusional to think their kids are suddenly emerging from cocoons at age seven reading Ibsen. The fact is they’ve been exposed to years of enormously rich “curriculum” that enhances reading skills, among other things, and that would be the envy of almost any American childhood; it just doesn’t look like what we call curriculum anymore! It’s outdoor play and subsidized play-based childcare and living in a family with the resources for recreation and quality family time.
It’s high time we faced the fact that there is no prescribed curriculum of facts and skills that small children need to cover by a certain age if they are to succeed later in school. The fixed belief that such a pedagogy exists and is necessary for children to master by, say, the end of Kindergarten fuels the current American “standards” fetish for narrowly defined measures of success, such as the ability to recognize a certain number of sight words or vowel digraphs by a particular date in the school calendar. This is dangerous nonsense that obscures real learning:
To be clear, I’m not suggesting these skills don’t need to be mastered. Only that there is no reason – no reason at all – that we should think they need to be accomplished within a certain time frame and within a certain educational format. All typically developing kids (and most atypically developmentint kids) can eventually learn to read. By age nine or ten, you can’t tell who started to read at four vs. seven – though you can tell immediately who lacked a rich developmental environment. It’s a cultural construct that says they need to “cover” these skills by age four (in the UK) or by age 5 in the U.S. (in contrast to age 6 a generation ago) or by age 7 in Sweden or Poland (an emerging educational powerhouse, by the way, so watch out).
I think we are really barking up the wrong tree with our focus on earlier and earlier acquisition of lower-level skills that are disconnected from their real life context. And that’s why I’m both thrilled and worried about expanding our publicly funded pre-K programs within the public school infrastructure that has already made such a mess of Kindergarten. I know in my heart that expanding access to preschool will level the playing field and close the ability gaps for millions of disadvantaged kids… but only if we understand what good curriculum is and is not.
We need to be a lot more discriminating in our use of the term “early childhood education.” Early childhood curriculum should be full of ideas, feelings, problems, relationships, dramas, resolutions, and, above all, human connection. We need to think more seriously about where this kind of curriculum is actually happening… and where it most definitely is not.
In early childhood, the environment is the curriculum. It’s not a catchy phrase, but it’s an essential truth.