Everyone was excited when the Ontario provincial government introduced full-time junior kindergarten a few years ago, but there are downsides to this expedited entry into institutionalized learning.
Four years ago, the province of Ontario introduced full-time junior kindergarten to all its schools. JK, as it’s known, starts the year a child turns four and is a precursor to senior kindergarten. Up until 2012, JK was only a part-time program offered at limited schools.
Then the provincial government decided to expand the program, implementing full-time JK after a prolonged debate over whether or not to offer subsidized daycare. Ontario’s former deputy minister of education, Charles Pascal wrote a detailed report called “With Our Best Future In Mind.” Pascal had a unique vision for Ontario’s education system. He strove for:
A seamless network of child-care, early learning and parental support programs centred in the province’s public schools—a holistic, comprehensive, integrated approach that would unite everything from prenatal care to nutritional education in a ‘one-stop shopping’ model for parents. (Macleans)
Parents, including myself, were encouraged to enroll our children in the new full-time program, now available in most schools. I sent my oldest son to JK because it would give me more time to spend with my younger child and he was eager to start; but I quickly realized there was a lot that made me uncomfortable.
It was a regular full day of school, from 8:45 a.m. to 3:20 p.m., with three recesses in an uninspiring playground, two snacks, lunch, various academic subjects, and no quiet time in the afternoon. Kids were expected to reach academic milestones and teachers were under pressure to cover material. There was homework in the evenings – sight words to memorize, reading books to review. The use of iPads and SmartBoards was so prevalent that it seemed downright obsessive.
All of this conspired to create an approach to learning that struck me as overly structured, to the point of being damaging. Indeed, Early Childhood Education professor Christopher Brown agrees when he laments the tragic ceding of free playtime to academic achievement in kindergarten classrooms all across North America:
"Focus on rules can diminish children’s willingness to take academic risks and curiosity as well as impede their self-confidence and motivation as learners – all of which can negatively impact their performance in school and in later life."
I heard from multiple parents about how exhausted or overstimulated their kids were by pickup time. One teacher said they had to make sure the littlest ones didn’t fall asleep while putting on their backpacks at the end of the day, crashing backward into their lockers.
So I made my own schedule, picking my son up every day after lunch recess. Just as his classmates were settling in for another 2.5 hours of learning, I tucked him into bed for an afternoon nap, followed by outdoor playtime. Many people were surprised this was even possible and, quite a few, critical; but this frantic, headlong rush into structured learning baffled me and I refused to accept it for the following reasons:
There is no way a four-year-old is capable of ‘learning’ for seven hours. Even I can’t stay focused for that long. Whatever happened to the importance of down time, of hanging around the house, of playing with siblings, even of boredom?
Recent research has found that full-time kindergarten does not give kids the long-term advantages that it claims. Initially, the full-time kids are ahead of their half-day counterparts but, by grade one, the gap closes, especially among students from minority backgrounds. Economist Philip DeCicca of McMaster University stated: “There was a short-term positive effect, but by the end of the first year, it was essentially gone.”
Other studies suggest that full-time school at ages three and four actually slows development and can create behavioural problems down the line. In “Hold On To Your Kids,” author and developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld writes:
“Children begin forming attachments at their level, with their peers instead of with their parents, and this pulls them out of the orbit of their parents and truncates their development.”
I understand that full-time JK is beneficial for working parents, and I hold no judgment toward those who support it, but it didn't feel right for me. In the meantime, I’m appreciative of the luxury of being able to create my own schedule. This way, my kids and I get the best of both worlds – academic and social stimulation during the day, afternoon rest, and time to hang out. I couldn’t ask for a better arrangement.