So here’s the deal… In Queensland, if your child turns five by 30th June, you can send them to school in January of that year. This could mean that your child will start school as a four-year-old, along with children who are five turning six that same year. If this is your child and their birthday is in the first half of the year, you also have the choice to wait another year and send them to school when they too are five, turning six. To make things super-confusing, each of our states and territories has a different rule. For the purposes of this article, we’ll limit our focus to Queensland.
As a parent, I am now confronted with this situation myself. My eldest is eligible to start school next year but, given that her birthday is in April, I can also choose to “hold her back” to start school the following year. As a mum, I am confident that she would cope with school next year. I can see that she loves learning and I am excited for her to start school, but as a teacher, I am trying to ignore those thoughts and here’s why…
Have you seen the curriculum for that first year of school? Children are not in a play-based environment, learning through exploring and at their own pace. They are in formal education and it’s fast paced! In Queensland, we have taken away pre-school and inserted Prep (short for “preparatory”) for children commencing school. With the name change, has come a whole new syllabus and set of expectations we are putting on our five, and sometimes, four-year-olds. More importantly, the consequence of a structured curriculum is that there is less opportunity for unstructured play. Compared with their older peers, for the youngest school starters this could represent nearly twelve months of reduced play-learning opportunities.
Play is so important in a young child’s life. As adults, we may not understand its importance or even remember how much fun it is, but the value of play in the early years should not be disregarded.
Play based learning offers many benefits:
- learn to problem solve
- develop language skills
- build their social skills
- build their emotional skills
- use their imagination and explorative contexts
- introduce and develop reading and writing skills
- introduce and develop mathematics skills
- build fine and gross motor skills
Play provides time to mature, physically, emotionally and intellectually – a factor that is crucial for a successful education and yet cannot be rushed or accelerated artificially. As an educator, I know that I can teach a child an incredible amount through play-based activities and that they themselves can learn so much through play and exploration.
When did we decide that sending your child to school at five-turning-six was “holding them back?” Where did this idea come from? Who gave us this idea? When did it become normal or “ideal” to send your child to school at four years of age? When it comes to education outcomes, we only have to look at some of the most successful countries in the world to see that sending a child to school when they are four is not ideal — and some argue that we shouldn’t be sending them until they are closer to six or seven years old!
Other states are already moving away from the idea of four year olds starting school, with some schools, in locations such as New South Wales, recommending to all parents that children born in the first half of the year wait to start until the following year, when the child is already five.
As a qualified teacher, school readiness expert and mother, I feel a four year old deserves the right to be four. Now, you might think that sounds ironic, knowing that I run school readiness programs and develop school readiness resources, but I should clarify that my approach is heavily play-based and children are not forced to learn before they are ready or pushed into anything too early. The aim is not to get kids off to school sooner or to get them reading earlier, but to prepare them for the transition from play to curriculum-based, structured learning, a change that many children can find stressful and challenging.
We need to let our kids be kids. They are about to embark on a minimum 11-year journey of formal education, so why are we rushing it? Why do we feel we need to send them as soon as we can? Yes, your child might be ready and they might “cope”, but think of how much more ready they will be with another year of play under their belt! Imagine how much more confident, settled and ready they will be to begin their schooling.
Maybe the rush comes from us? Maybe we are so excited and proud that our children are growing up, that we want to send them to school as soon as they qualify. For many families, there are also financial considerations, but I would encourage you to give some thought to this important stage of your child’s life. They are only little once and this is such a vital time for them to learn, grow and play at their own pace. School will still be there next year. Even if they are ready this year, they are still going to be ready next year and, more than ever, are going to be hungry for learning.