A large new federal study that surveyed 2,500 teachers finds drastic changes between kindergarten in 2010 and in 1998, before massive increases in federal demands on schools. These young children spend more time sitting and listening to their teachers and completing worksheets, and drastically less time learning about music, art, and science, as well as drastically less time in open-ended play such as water tables and dress-up.

Many parents have responded to these increasing demands on their children by “redshirting” their kindergarteners, or starting them in school at age 6 instead of 5. One in five kindergarteners is six years old now.

The changes are in response to both nervous parents (see: “helicopter moms” and “tiger moms”) and an increase in state and federal testing and curriculum mandates such as those inside No Child Left Behind and related to Common Core. The problem is that they’re the exact opposite of what young children need. Typical American education programs run opposite to children’s developmental needs by giving them heavy makework in lieu of free, hands-on, and preferably outdoors play when they are young, then easing off the academics right when it should be accelerating as a child ages through the later elementary years.

Research finds that delaying the bulk of academic instruction doesn’t harm children’s long-term achievement, and that forcing wiggly kids to sit still inside for hours a day can make them hate school and retard their intellectual development because the physical activity of play develops a child’s brain pathways that are later used to support academic and social learning. Young children need a homelike environment and limited academic demands. Older children need a loving yet demanding academic environment keyed towards serious moral and intellectual excellence. Most schools get this backwards, and that’s bad for kids.

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