Kindergarten Tests and the Importance of Play

7 ways to get schools to reduce academic pressure on young children

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Standardized testing has hit kindergarten big-time, as principals and superintendents push reading and math curricula into earlier grades to improve the odds that students will later pass standardized tests that gauge school performance. But kindergarten tests are almost certainly counterproductive, according to a new report from the Alliance for Childhood, an advocacy group in College Park, Md., called "Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School." Pushing children to perform at a level they aren't old enough to handle increases behavior problems and failure rates and takes away from a focus on the importance of play, which is what 5-year-olds really should be doing. Playing is the best way to learn social skills and self-control—which just might result in kids deciding that they really like going to school. Plus academic testing of children under age 8 is not a reliable indicator of future achievement in school, according to the nine new studies in the Alliance report.

[Find out how outdoor play can head off "nature deficit disorder" in kids.]

Parents have more power to help a child cope with the downside of academic kindergarten than they may realize, up to the ultimate reaction-opting out. You can ask that your child not be required to take kindergarten tests, for instance. There will be plenty of time to be tested in the years to come. Four positive ways to deal with kindergarten testing:

  • Be reassuring and encouraging about tests—and talk to the teacher about ways to reduce test-related stress.
  • Make sure your child gets plenty of sleep and a good breakfast on testing day.
  • Tell your child that tests do not measure how smart, able, or good a person is.
  • Consider requesting that your kindergartner not be tested.
  • Parents can influence the system, too. I was surprised how receptive my kindergartner's teacher was to my fears that full-day academic kindergarten was too much too soon, even for a kid like mine, who is excited about reading and writing. It never hurts to ask-or to push for recognition of the importance of play. Strategies suggested by the Alliance for Childhood include:

    • Talk to your child's teacher and principal about excessive testing. You may find they agree with you and will work with you to make changes.
    • Talk to other parents about their experiences and observations. Work together to educate the community about the limitations and risks of testing young children.
    • Ask the PTA or other parents' groups to organize a meeting on early-childhood education and alternatives to standardized tests, such as observation and work-based assessments.
    • Find out if there is a district policy on the testing of young children. Ask that policies be adopted in line with professional recommendations on testing children under age 8.
    • Talk to your pediatrician about the importance of play for healthy child development and how stressful school experiences affect children. Ask him or her to get involved.
    • Write a letter to the editor, or post a comment on the school website or a parenting blog.
    • Get help from early-childhood specialists at a nearby university or from the state or local chapter of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
    • I'm on a tear about the lack of play in early-childhood education; can you tell that my daughter's kindergarten grants just one 30-minute recess in a whole day? Play is essential for learning, and the importance of play holds for older kids, too. Even grown-ups need to play to be their creative, productive, and healthy best.

      Need more convincing about the importance of play? Here are 5 ways to get more play in your child's day, as well as my conversation with psychiatrist and author Stuart Brown on what interviewing serial killers taught him about the importance of play.