I’m watching her as she draws in her book. She is sitting on a chair at the table. She slides off, stands up and leans on the table. She is still drawing. She dances on the spot then stretches. Her legs slink out sideways, her bottom wiggles and her chair tips. She is still drawing. She moves to the floor and lays on her tummy, but even still she jumps up to ask me a question, find a thing she needs, and then return to the floor. Still drawing. She’s alternating between tummy, cross-legged and kneeling positions. Still drawing. She’s been fully engaged in her drawings for 30 minutes and hasn’t been still at all. After half an hour she declares “I’ve had enough of all this work!”, then goes off to find a chicken and ride her tricycle back and forth on the patio with her chook tucked under her arm.
Watching her move through this ‘simple’ act of completing a drawing, I realise how my little girl is still built for thinking AND doing – not thinking OR doing. And for her, both thinking and doing are accompanied by talking, singing, moving and using space. Looking at this busy girl, who appears to be self-propelled by curiosity and singing, I realise that she’s six years old now, a big school girl, and she’s still so SO very little.
She’s still delighted by nursery rhymes. She still skips as she walks. She still puts her shoes on the wrong feet. She still fills her day with stories and songs. She can still fill hours riding a tricycle with a chicken on her lap. If she’s not moving in some way then she’s sick. Or asleep. This little one has to feel life with her whole body, every waking moment of it. What would have happened if I had insisted she sit on the chair and work at the table? She can do it, but I guarantee that she would have lost interest in her drawing, and gone off to play somewhere else.
She was five and a half when she began prep at the beginning of this year. In Queensland prep is the year before first grade, and you must be five before the 30th of June in the year they enrol, which means that children as young as 4.5 years may start school. It’s too young, isn’t it? I wonder how all those little people (with all the same developmental impulses to move, make sound, touch, discuss and explore) can fit in a space together. At tables and chairs. Doing work. Not touching each other. Quietly.
I can’t get over the irony of preparing for prep. Prep IS the preparation year. It is designed to be the transition year to gently introduce children to academic concepts and school culture. What is there to prepare for? Being smart? Being still? Remembering to be good and not touch each other? How do you leave the world of pure play and enter this place called school, where it seems children must deny their natural mode of being and learn according to the expectations of others?
My children have been blessed with their schooling, having had the joyful experience of early education where it is understood that children must move and talk and touch and create and be surrounded with nature and wonder. Prior to my daughter starting school she enjoyed playful adventures at kindy with her friends. She was not expected to sit and complete a task with an academic subtext (presented as ‘play-based’), or even one that was pretending to be academic (worksheets). She was not expected to arrive at school with a complete knowledge of the upper and lower case letters, blends, sight words, numbers to 20 (forwards and backwards) or any idea, beyond what she had worked out by herself, of mathematical processes.
Because that would be silly, wouldn’t it? To learn the stuff you are going to learn before you need to learn it? When you are four?
In many early education services this is happening. Kindy programs are referred to as ‘Pre-Preps’ and despite offering quality ‘play-based’ learning, are still described as programs that prepare children for the ‘formal rules and routines for school’. Is learning about formal rules and routines when you are three year old more important than playing?
Prep is not compuslory in Queensland this year but next year it will be. Children as young as four-and-a-half years will be required to attend school. The prep curriculum is becoming more formalised, despite the fact that the Foundation Curriculum itself is still quite open for playful learning. Kindergartens (‘Pre-Preps’) are beginning to offer academic content, despite the fact that the Early Years Learning Framework does not require this. This is known as the ‘pushdown’, and we are hearing passionate early childhood advocates and worried parents talking about this with growing concern.
There are more useful ways to prepare for prep:
Play. Don’t do stuff for children if they can do it themselves (and even if they can’t!). Explore materials. Climb and hang and swing. Fall and get hurt. Get sticky. Read books and tell stories and sing songs. Go for walks. Bake. Sleep. Love animals. Plant things. Light campfires and cook damper. Play in the rain. Bury dead pets. Talk with people. Find out how things work. Go for night walks. Draw and paint. Tie things up with string. Be curious. Use sharp tools. Feel feelings, especially the big ones. Cuddle. Be safe and polite. Rest. Breathe. Be bored. Daydream. Play.
Through self-directed play children learn about boundaries, respect, self-awareness, healing strategies, needs of others, safety, community, creativity, thinking for themselves. If teachers, including prep teachers and early years primary teachers, forget to include plenty of time for these natural childhood experiences, daily, then a game of catch-up ensues, which may extend well into primary and secondary years. Children will have to learn all these things about themselves sooner or later AND still be expected to progress through curriculum at the same time. I feel stressed just thinking about it. It is my belief that this is why there is such a focus on developing resilience in primary schools now.
My daughter is not in school at the moment. She and her older siblings love their school, and will return, but are having a home-school ‘sabbatical’ for a while because we want to have some fun together. At six, she is in the older range of preppies, and she’s still so very young. All preppies SHOULD be able to twitch and wriggle and have as much time and space as they need, just to complete a drawing. They shouldn’t be rushed through activities due to timetabling. They should not have homework. They should be able to take a tricycle-and-chicken-break (or equivalent!) when they need to. They can learn about letters and numbers without using desks. At home my daughter is learning through her own playful discovery every day, and is covering the Foundation curriculum practically on her own.
The only preparation required for this kind of learning is time, space and play.