Academic Creep

Not long ago, I was talking to a mom of a three year old little girl. She was clearly a loving mom and very in tune with her daughter who was bright, curious, fun-loving, happy, and healthy. In other words, all's well.

But this mom was concerned that her daughter "wasn't interested in anything educational in nature." She explained that she's tried lots of different ways to interest her child in letters and numbers, but her daughter "just isn't having any of it." So she wanted to know if I had any tried and true ways of introducing the ABCs and 123s to little ones.

I think this concern is very concerning.


What Is Educational?

In our current culture, it seems we've all embraced the notion that anything related to academics is "educational" and everything else is somehow not. I call this "academic creep" -- a teach-to-the-test mentality that's clouding our view of learning and short-changing our children by denying one simple, intuitive truth...


Forgive my soap-boxedness about this, but honestly, how could we have come so far in advancing human knowledge only to have narrowed the definition of "educational" to academic subject matter?

I'll never forget the first time my daughter Becky waved bye-bye on her own. I was so proud, I told everyone how smart she was. And she was! She heard "bye bye" and knew what to do. That's what I call learning.

Education vs. Academics

And what we call things actually does matter because words shape our attitudes and actions. Certainly, learning letters and numbers is educational. But so is learning to wave "bye bye," and how to put on your socks, when to say please, what it takes to get to the top of the monkeybars, and how not to get caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

  • A child who understands everyday language is ready for school.
  • A child who dresses herself is ready for school.
  • A child with good manners is ready for school.
  • A child with stamina, coordination, and persistence is ready for school.
  • A child who understands there are rules she is expected to follow and consequences when she doesn't is ready for school.
  • It's all educational. It's just not academic.

And we must learn to separate the two in the way we think and speak about learning.


What is Kindergarten Readiness, Really?

Now, you might be asking yourself, what about all those stories of kids not being ready for kindergarten? As an educator and professional development consultant, I agree many kids are NOT as ready as they need to be today. As I see it, there are two academic trends colliding here: 1. we're expecting more from kids earlier, and 2. we're starting them earlier.

I realize this sounds like double-talk, but it's the adult logic that's backwards here, in my view. It makes sense to us that if a child needs more preparation for the higher standards we set, we should start them earlier. After all, practice works, doesn't it? But learning at these early ages is a function of developmental and neurological maturity. The brain simply isn't wired up enough to process information the way it needs to be processed for schoolwork. And sitting little ones around a table doing worksheets is the exact OPPOSITE of what they need to be "ready" for learning at that higher level.

Early childhood learning is a personal, follow-your-nose journey of play and exploration with no other agenda than what's fun and fascinating right now. That's nature's educational plan. In fact, a three year old's brain is far more receptive to learning from mudpies and monkeybars than ABCs and 123s right now.

Of course, gently introducing them to new things they haven't found on their own is a great way to expand their learning horizons. But expecting them to engage or "perform" academically or in any other arena, is another matter entirely. They'll do their best to oblige us, of course, but if they can't, all we're doing is setting the table for unnecessary stress and frustration.


Attitudes Towards Education

Just because a preschooler isn't showing interest in letters and numbers yet does not mean she's not interested in "anything educational in nature." That's an adult concept of what education is supposed to look like being applied to three-year-old behavior set against the backdrop of "academic creep."

 So when that mom applied the "educational" label to letters and numbers, without realizing it, she was actually ignoring the educational value in everything else her child WAS interested in doing.

 But what worries me most is the possibility of a false or fear-laden judgment forming about the child's attitude towards academics, while overlooking her individual disposition for learning. After all, how’s a three year old supposed to know the difference between what's “educational” and “not educational?” And even if she could, would she really be savvy enough to strike an attitude about it, good or bad?

 We need to respect and celebrate learning in all its forms at all stages of early development. And yes, sometimes that may be academic in nature. But if it's not right now, that's perfectly OK. It will happen when she's ready.

 In the meantime, mudpies and monkeybars still have plenty to teach.