First day of school
Clutching his hand extra tightly before he left, I kissed my four-year-old goodbye as he started reception class in primary school this autumn. It seemed too soon. His little face and hands all still looked babyish to my eyes. He had only just learned to write his name.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether he was too small for all this. In most countries, he actually would be. England, where I live, is one of few places in the world where children usually begin their education in the academic year after they turn four. In Denmark, Brazil, and the United States, the official school starting age is six. In Finland, Sweden, and Indonesia, it is seven.
These vast global differences had me asking what age is ideal for a child to begin their formal education? Is four too young, just right, or even too old?
“This is the way that children learn, almost like little scientists, by freely feeling, dissecting and processing the world around them.”
In 2013 more than a hundred education professionals sent an open letter to the British government, asking for nurseries and schools to focus on play rather than formal learning. “Children who enter school at six or seven – after several years of high quality nursery education – consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of wellbeing,” they wrote.
There certainly isn’t any harm in letting kids be kids. “Play is the work of childhood,” said the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, famous for his work on childhood development. This is the way that children learn, almost like little scientists, by freely feeling, dissecting and processing the world around them.
When I watch my son with a box of plastic bricks, I see initial frustration slowly turn to creativity. When he plays with his mini-figures, I find him recreating his real-world experiences, augmenting them and imagining new scenarios. In the space of a day, he can be a builder, a storyteller, an artist, an acrobat, a mathematician.
At the same time, though, I spot in him an urge to make deeper sense of the world that only interaction with an adult can provide. He wants to read by himself the books that I read for him at bedtime, he adds and subtracts but wants to do more complex calculations, he loves to write out the letters of the alphabet but struggles to string them into words. Teaching can fill in these gaps.
“As much as it pains me to pack him off to school while he’s still so small, I’m also a little relieved.”
It’s tempting as a parent to want one’s child to push ahead in the educational race as early as possible. I’ve met those parents who proudly puff up as they tell me their child can already read. But one study showed that children who learned to read at age seven had caught up to those learning at the age of five by the time they turned ten years.
Besides, if I’m honest, having to entertain my son at home, or paying expensive nursery fees for another couple of years would be daunting. Knowing that his school is a fun, nurturing environment cushions the blow. As much as it pains me to pack him off to school while he’s still so small, I’m also a little relieved.