“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

For his kindergarten-readiness at a Blue Ribbon School, four-year-old Lukas was asked to count to 30 and find the letters from his name in a list placed before him. His family was impressed he walked confidently into the classroom alone with a stranger to follow instructions and perform independent tasks. However, Lukas failed the screening.

His father, Dr. Tilo Grosser, was not worried. “I surely could not count and read when I was 4, and yet did well in elementary school and later on; I’m a physician and scientist. However, this was 40 years ago – before there was such great pressure to teach academic skills to very young children.”

Lukas was invited back to a screening later in the year when he was older, but his parents decided not to prepare him for the specific tasks,  because he still showed no interest in learning numbers and letters. At the second screening, he failed again.

“Now somewhat concerned, we had him independently assessed and the result was that he was, indeed, a normally developing child and kindergarten-ready based on age-appropriate standards.”

This got the Grosser family thinking more deeply about education theory and practice. While their daughter had done well at the Blue Ribbon School, she had also had an earlier birthday. Will children who are not developmentally ready for early academics catch up later? Or more generally, 

how effective is teaching academics to younger children?  

There is a commonly held belief that children who learn early learn more over the long haul. Research, however, does not support this theory. For example, Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey, labor economists at the University of California, Santa Barbara published their study results, The Persistence of Early Childhood Maturity: International Evidence of Long-Run Age Effects, in The Quarterly Journal of Economics (2006) 121 (4). They found, after analyzing the math and science test scores for 250,000 students who entered academics at age five versus age six or seven, that those receiving academic instruction younger performed 4 to 12% less well by fourth grade and 2 to 9% lower by 8th grade.

In a set of smaller studies, Sebastian Suggate, a German Education Scientist, compared reading skills of children in public schools who began receiving academic instruction at 5 years of age with children in Waldorf schools who were 6 to 7 years old when reading lessons started (S.P. Suggate, E.A. Schaughency, E. Reese, Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlier, Early childhood research Quarterly 28: 33-48, 2013). He concluded that the children starting reading later achieved equally in reading fluency by age of 11 years on average and even a little better on reading comprehension.

The Harvard Education Letter has also weighed in, reporting on results from a The Gesell Institute for Human Development study, as reported in the article Kids Haven’t Changed; Kindergarten Has by Laura Pappano. According to Pappano, the report looked to answer these questions: “Have kids gotten smarter? Can they learn things sooner? What effect has modern culture had on child development? The surprising answers—no, no, and none.”

The study result summary encourages early childhood education to focus less on academic rigor and more on play-based learning.

Dr. Grosser’s family began to look at what they called “more progressive” schools, all the while marveling at how their curriculum really just looked a lot like play-based education from the past. “We decided to find a different kind of high-quality school for Lukas; one where early childhood education focused on the value of play and child-initiated learning rather than early academic instruction.”

This brought the Grosser family to the Waldorf School of Philadelphia, where Lukas joined the mixed age, early childhood education program. In a classroom of 16 children with two teachers, Lukas moved through a daily rhythm of indoor and outdoor playtime, finger knitting, artwork, singing, meal preparation and clean-up chores. Lukas only knew that he loved school, but his parents came to understand the solid foundation that was being laid for later academic learning.

“Lukas’ teachers explained during parent meetings how every activity had its place within a program to systematically develop and encourage academic learning,” says Dr. Grosser.  “Lukas was learning fine (e.g. finger knitting, artwork) and gross motor skills (e.g. outside play, construction play with heavy wood blocks, expressive dance), resilience (e.g. playing outside in the rain or when it is cold (with proper gear, of course), social skills (e.g. teamwork during play or meal preparation), along with self-regulation and focus (through the introduction of short quiet, no-distraction periods during the day).

They sang songs and recited poems or rhymes during almost all activities, thus developing a spoken vocabulary that is astounding. Skills fundamental to learning math, such as problem-solving, were part of each day.”

Dr. Grosser was particularly impressed with one example the teachers provided about how subtly influencing a play space could encourage divergent thinking. “They told me that they were removing large wooden blocks from the play area every week so that the children would have to problem solve and find other ways and objects to build the structures they’d developed in the previous weeks.”

Lukas’ first year in the Waldorf School of Philadelphia was so enjoyable and inspiring, that the Grosser family moved their daughter, Anna, to the school as well. She transitioned smoothly into a warm and welcoming 3rd grade and noticed that her new class had a more committed and calm work ethic than the one from her more traditionally academic school.

Dr. Grosser says, “This surprised me because Anna’s new class was considerably larger than her previous class and her previous teachers were excellent, so classroom management should not have been an issue. I believe that the differences that Anna noticed in her peers were a reflection of the specific focus Waldorf early childhood education places on skills that are important for future successful learning”.

Lukas is now in 1st grade and beginning formal academic lessons, but still enjoys lots of singing, storytelling and free play along with subjects in Spanish, choir, dance, handwork and physical education games. He began academics this year learning form drawing, where students copy increasingly more difficult graphical forms from their teacher’s chalkboard example as a precursor to cursive writing. There are also complex geometric figures being introduced — the beginnings of logic and abstract arithmetic. And, yes, Lukas is learning to count… by both ones and twos.

Dr. Grosser muses, somewhat tongue and cheek: Can he count to 30 now?

He says, “I don’t know, but I am resisting the temptation to find out because I know he will. And when he is taught this, he will learn it quickly, have fun doing it, and love practicing the skill.”

He goes on to say what is really important to his family having made the switch to Waldorf Education. “We know Lukas is ready for first grade, ready for academics and, most importantly, will enjoy many magical childhood years learning at his school.”