Why I disagree with lowering the school starting age

Kindergarten has so many cool toys

Image: Flickr user Squiggle

Children in New Zealand, probably 99% of them (a big guess on my part!), start school when they turn 5. It makes me wonder how many parents think that this is the legal age that children must start school. The legal age for attending school in New Zealand is 6 years and you must stay in school until you turn 16 (unless you get an exemption).

Labour MP, Louisa Wall, who I must admit is possibly the flavour of the month in NZ politics at the moment is proposing that the school starting age be lowered to 4 years. [Article here] It turns out, according to Labour Leader, David Shearer, that this is something that Louisa has been talking about for a few weeks now, but mostly at a localised level in her electorate of Manurewa [see end of this video from Breakfast from about 4:25].

I think the point made of getting more children into some form of Early Childhood Education is valid. It will definitely help set them up for school. However I think that there are a lot of students who simply are not ready for school at 5 or even 6 years of age. Especially boys. They need time to play. And play is a very important factor in learning at that age. By putting formal education in front of them, they will not cope.

As a father of 5 children, 3 who are currently at school and one at kindergarten (the other is nearly 3), at least one of the older three could have done well by starting school a bit later. At least one of them was ready to go to school at about 4 and a half. We need to recognise that all children are different. The biggest concern I have about starting compulsory schooling at 4, would be that it would become too formal and structured. The Te Whariki early childhood curriculum in New Zealand is I believe well regarded around the world. It’s principles encourage relationship building, development, family and community connections and empowerment. From what I understand (I’m certainly no expert on this!!!), learning from play and encouraging participation is a big part of this.

Children are all different. They need time to develop at their own pace. They need opportunities to learn in their own ways, including learning about things that are of interest to them. Starting school at 6 years old is perhaps a reasonable compromise. I think that free play needs to be encouraged in the early years of school to help these children develop. Even as I watch my own children play at home, I can see them developing. The way they (boys and girls) play with the Lego and build structures and machines, I can see how their thinking and skills have developed over time. They are like little engineers – and pretty good ones if I say so myself – however I don’t want to push them to keep doing that. If they choose to, that is fine, but I want them to have a range of opportunities and interests.

We need to let our kids be kids! Let them play, to explore, to try out various things and see what happens! They need opportunities to succeed and to fail. They need to learn that it’s okay to fall, and getting hurt is part of life – but let’s keep the adventure going!

UPDATE: 5:32PM 10 September

After writing this post, someone posted a link to this article on Facebook where an academic suggests that children shouldn’t be starting formal education until age 6.