Cindy Thagard’s thoughtful post Falling Down made me think about the many times as parents when we have to really think our way through. Our first instincts may not always be correct. When we have babies, we have to use trial and error – a lot. That alone can be unsettling. Then, as our children grow, we are continually bombarded with information aimed at making us worry. We wonder: Is my child okay? Is my child on track? Am I messing this up somehow? Who thought it was a good idea to put me in charge? The gray areas of parenting are what make it so hard.

Certainly there is plenty of helpful information too — an understanding of Child Development is invaluable — but our natural parental fears and insecurities make us susceptible to all sorts of pressures. We can be easy prey. We can sometimes torment ourselves about whether our child is falling behind. According to Swiss Psychologist Jean Piaget, as noted in a recent Alliance for Childhood publication, a more common American question seems to be:  “How can I speed up the developmental process?” Americans assume that sooner is better. When it comes to certain skills, this is simply not the case.

Want your child to love reading? Read to them every day.

The skill I have in mind is reading. It is thrilling for parents when their children learn to read. But in the case of reading, we can do harm when we push before the child is ready. Sunflower blogger Jaime’s excellent post, The Gift of Words,  gives us wonderful ideas for how to foster a love of reading in our children. Read to babies and  children every day, sing to them, tell them stories, and understand that there is no evidence to support the claim that early reading leads to later success in school or a later love of reading. This is not a gray area – the evidence is clear.

I think it’s hard for us, living in our American culture, to really understand and believe that. Our policy makers have ignored the evidence for years. Play has all but vanished from kindergarten. I get very upset about this. Take a breath and relax if your child is not reading at age five. Think about these statements, from a recent article by the Alliance for Childhood, The Crisis in Early Education:

The pushing down of the elementary school curriculum into early childhood has reached a new peak with the adoption by almost every state of the so called common core standards. They call for kindergartners to master more than 90 skills related to literacy and math, many intended to get children reading in kindergarten.  Yet there is no research showing that children who read at age five do better in the long run than those who learn at six or seven. For many children the outcomes of this hurried curriculum are unhealthy. Educators and physicians report increasing incidents of extreme and aggressive behavior in preschools and kindergartens and link these to the stress children experience in school.

Studies show, children who play in kindergarten excel over others in many areas, including reading, mathematics, social and emotional adjustment, creativity, intelligence, oral expression, and industry

The Alliance for Childhood is spreading the word about the vast evidence that exists on this topic. One study that struck me is from Germany. They compared children from 50 play based kindergartens and 50 centers for cognitive achievement. By age ten the children who had played in kindergarten excelled over the others in many areas: reading, mathematics, social and emotional adjustment, creativity, intelligence, oral expression, and “industry” (Linda Darling-Hammond and Jon Snyder, “Curriculum Studies and the Traditions of Inquiry,” Handbook of Research on Curriculum, 1992.). When the results of this study came out in 1992, German policy makers responded and converted all of their kindergartens back to being play based. In Finland, they don’t begin formal schooling until age seven, and their 15 year olds place in the top three on international exams (Programme for International Student Assessment :PISA). The U.S. ranks much lower.

I don’t have all the answers on reading, certainly. I have one child who loves to read, and one who does not. And I have some regrets. My main regret is that I stopped reading to my children too soon. I know Sunflower parents who continued to read to their children into the high school years. Their children were excellent readers much earlier than that. That family reading time was a way to spark discussion, soothe, enjoy a shared experience, laugh, learn and reflect together. If you want to find out more and advocate for children on this issue, visit the Alliance website and register with them.

Jennifer Ligeti is Managing Director at Sunflower Creative Arts. Over the years she’s worn many hats at Sunflower, including Seedlings teacher and facilitator of communication workshops for parents. She is mom to two former Seedlings, Samantha and Alex.

© Jennifer Ligeti and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012
Photos © Jaime Greenberg, Haidor Truu, and Sunflower Creative Arts 2012