The Minefield of School Readiness

When traveling around the state speaking to parents and educators I am often asked the dreaded School Readiness Question: “What do the children need to know to be ready for school?”

The answer to this question is a philosophical minefield, and everyone has an opinion.  Parents who wish the best for their children want to know they are doing all they can for their child.  Educators also want to know the same. Often people are surprised by my response when I started discussing ideas like dressing themselves, toileting themselves, being responsible for their own belongings, sharing, respecting others and the learning environment.  Some may believe I didn’t answer the question.

However, when “School Readiness” is discussed the true question seems to be:

“Does a child NEED to know their alphabet and numbers to 20 before they start school?”

The information and answer you receive on this specific question will depend totally on the source and beliefs of the person or organization giving the response.

I have witnesses with amazement that some schools (to the desperation and despair of many a fantastic educator and many families) have started meeting with their local kindergartens and parents to let them know the expectations of the school when the children arrive.  The “Prep Mafia” (as they have now been nicknamed!) are listing these exact things: Children should know their alphabet, numbers to 20 etc. The dreaded push down of skills. I have heard of schools sending home readers, sight words and other homework home from week two of Prep.  My only response is a disbelieving “Really“!  I can only hope that these schools are in the true minority.

I have also heard some Early Years Educators enthusiastically discussing their phonics program in kindergarten, sitting whole groups of very young children for extended letter and number sessions, even doing semi formal handwriting experiences and worksheets.

Knowing the names of numbers and letters is such a very small part of numeracy and literacy and should not be the focus of pre-preparatory learning. The more abstract knowledge surrounding numeracy and literacy learning is embedded in play.  Being able to sing the names of the letters or rote list the names of numbers at an early age does not necessarily mean that a child will have any higher performance and greater  linguistic or mathematical understanding in later life.

A very wise parent, who has a strong belief in the power of play, brought up a very interesting point.  Maybe schools and early years educators use this instructional teaching as they feel that is what is expected of them by parents and the wider community.  It’s neat, clean, easily understood by everyone and it looks like you are doing a good job.  I think she could be right.  Instructional teaching is easily ticked off a checklist and no explanation is necessary; however is it best practice and does it suit all young children?  Can’t the Invitational learning environment be just as, if not more, effective?

I believe early years educators need to stand up for play and be able to explain that there is so much more to learning than knowing the names of the numbers and letters.  Children will learn so much more than this.  Stand up for the many different ways in which young children learn.  Explain the stress, anxiety and repulsion of learning that can occur when skills and knowledge are pushed too soon and too fast on young children.

I also believe that greater communication and understanding is required between early years educators, early childhood teachers and schools.  There are some fantastic initiatives and programs supporting this understanding. Only this week I was chatting to a member of  a certain regional team in Qld supporting links between playgroups, centres, schemes and schools, so that transition for families and children is seamless.  The program aims to develop greater understanding of learning through play, how young children learn, the importance of allowing children to develop at their own pace and the effects of stress on children being forced to learn set curriculum too quickly and too soon.  They assist Principals and schools develop understanding of what early years educators are required to do through the E.Y.L.F and N.Q.S.  Through this process, greater understanding between all concerned is created.   A united message is the result, reducing the fear and apprehension of many children and parents about achievement of specific skills before going to school.  This goal is at the same time outstanding and just plain common sense, in my opinion.

For everyone to be on the same page would make all our lives and the lives of children and families better supported, less stressful and more successful for all concerned.  At times, I have directly felt the “them and us” (early years and schools) pressure.  I have had to defend my stance on the importance of play, experiential and real life learning many times in my career, particularly when I have brought those early years concepts and methodologies into primary school.

However, there is no “fence to cross” here, only greater understanding by all those in the education sector to be gained.  We all want the children in our care to reach their full potential and to be able to choose their future.

Nowhere in the E.Y.L.F, the Queensland Kindergarten Learning Guidelines or any other framework for the early years have I seen a specific statement about learning names of letters or numerals by the end of the kindergarten year.  There is not a checklist in these documents stating date and attainment of such.  As it is not required.  It may happen and does happen often, because a child is ready and an educator extends and supports each child’s developmental level when they see the opportunity.  Parents and families will also do the same, as a child’s first teacher. Through rich and diverse play experience, music, finger rhymes and stories; discussing birthdays and everyday life, children are immersed in literacy and numeracy, learning these concepts naturally, as they did crawling, walking and talking.

Let’s work together and allow children time to develop all the rich knowledge, skills and experience that come from play, so children are ready for future learning.  Learning is not only academic skills and knowledge, learning is for life.

Attached here is a small list of some important life and learning skills to help children be capable and confident ready for future learning.

Skills that help your child to be confident and capable




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