Two years ago the New York Times published an article talking about a trend that continues to accelerate: pushing academic instruction and seat time longer and earlier.

Twenty years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing: building with blocks, drawing or creating imaginary worlds, in their own heads or with classmates. But increasingly these activities are being abandoned for teacher-led, didactic instruction typically used in higher grades. In many schools, formal education now starts at age 4 or 5. Without this early start, the thinking goes, kids risk falling behind in crucial subjects such as reading and math, and may never catch up.

The idea seems obvious: Starting sooner means learning more; the early bird catches the worm.

But a growing group of scientists, education researchers and educators say there is little evidence that this approach improves long-term chievement; in fact, it may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even souring kids’ desire to learn.

The article goes on to cite several studies that followed children started earlier and later and found that those who started earlier were no further ahead later on in school, and sometimes were further behind. This matches with research that finds similar outcomes for government-run preschool programs: small early boosts that fade out relatively quickly, and an increase in behavior and emotional problems. Play-based early childhood appears to do the opposite.

“Play is often perceived as immature behavior that doesn’t achieve anything,” David Whitebread, a psychologist at Cambridge University who has studied the topic for decades, told the Times. “But it’s essential to their development. They need to learn to persevere, to control attention, to control emotions. Kids learn these things through playing.”

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