The Girl Who Never Learned to Play

A True Story

When my son was in Kindergarten, we had to wait for the school bus every morning and afternoon.  I had his two-year-old brother with me in a stroller, begging to get out.  You know how it is, moms, a great parenting moment to wake up for at 6 AM – especially in winter.

I would chat with another Kindergarten mom on days when the bus was late.  Her daughter was in the same class as my son, but our families were completely different.  My son, who would later be diagnosed with autism, had difficulty printing his letters.  He could already read, but that alone wasn’t good enough to meet the standards, and his teacher was concerned.  Little Kathy,* on the other hand, had beautiful printing and was doing well in all areas.

I asked Kathy’s mother how she had gone about teaching her to write (I had tried to teach Zach,* but he just didn’t seem to be ready yet).  She said she started Kathy at age three by holding the girl’s hand as she did the strokes for her.  Gradually, the child had learned to do them for herself.  That seemed unusual because it wasn’t how I was taught, I had never seen it done, and I had never heard of it as a practice in teaching – my chosen profession.  But what could I say?  Her kid was writing.  

She also mentioned that they spend a lot of time studying and practicing skills at home after school and on Saturdays.  At five years old?  Really?  I began to question myself.  My child couldn’t write his letters.  He was not a “young Kindergartener.” For me, other than reading to my kids, engaging in conversations when they are curious about something, and taking them to museums and cultural events, I generally just let them play.  The time for hours of study would undoubtedly come, and I didn’t want it to start any earlier than it had to.  Maybe I was wrong all this time?

Since our children shared a classroom and a bus ride every day, they became friends.  One day, we invited Kathy over to play.  I picked up both children straight from the bus and walked them to our house.  At one point, my son wanted to play in the sandbox, and he asked Kathy to join him.  I was sitting nearby, keeping an eye on things.  For a while, Kathy just sat there.  She watched what Zach was doing.  

Finally, she said, “How do you… do this?”  

He looked up and said, “What?”  Seeing a sand toy near her, he added, “Oh, do you want to do this one?”

She responded, “No, like this whole thing.  What are you supposed to do in here?”

“Just…play with stuff,” he answered with a bit of a shrug.

She picked up a few things, scooped up sand, and dumped sand out.  Her face was quizzical the whole time as if she could not think of any way to make meaning out of the activity.

“Can we do something else now?” she asked.

I helped out in the classroom a few days a month when I had someone to watch my toddler. I knew this girl. She could read, write, and do math with stellar proficiency. I was watching her be stumped by open-ended play!  Zach had done this kind of thing almost exclusively until he entered Kindergarten.  We intentionally kept him away from direct instruction and let him explore as much as possible.  (Do you remember I mentioned that he could read when he started Kindergarten?  No clue.)  I started to feel more sure of my parenting path again.  He was a child!  Exploring and playing is what childhood is for.  What would the future hold for a girl who has already lost her youth in Kindergarten?

Kathy is probably a college graduate now.  Zach is taking a different path due to his autism but is no less brilliant and has tested with a high IQ.  I wanted to share this all these years later because the academic environment and pressure they faced 17 years ago have only worsened.  More is being expected at earlier ages.  There are kids like Kathy who can do it, but at what cost?  Is it worth it?

Imagine this country if all children were taught in an academic environment, sitting at desks, starting at age four.  What will it look like when they grow up and become the next generation’s leaders?

I, for one, would prefer they played in a sandbox a little longer.

*Names have been changed for privacy.


For further reading on Universal PreK and TK, and the push for academics starting earlier and earlier, please see:

The Problems with Transitional Kindergarten (AB 22)

EdSource: How California’s New Universal TK Program Will be Rolled Out

The Problems With Biden’s Universal Pre-K Proposal (Opinion)

Why pushing kids to learn too much too soon is counterproductive – The Washington Post

Early Childhood Education: The Case Against Direct Instruction of Academic Skills (#) – Alfie Kohn

To see what I do now to help children with handwriting difficulties, see:

Handwriting Without Tears | Encourage Elementary Education Services | San Jose

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