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May 19, 2011

Toddling Towards Harvard

By Leslie Crawford

This morning, I told my daughter's preschool teacher, Laura, about a recent New York Times article featuring the growing number of parents who enroll their young children in Junior Kumon centers.

As with Sylvan (the other leading national franchise), Japan-based Kumon is a major player in the tutoring arena, targeting students kindergarten through high school, as well as publishing scores of popular math and reading workbooks. For the past 54 years, the Kumon method - emphasizing mastery through practice - has been taught to over 20 million students in 44 countries worldwide. In 2007, Kumon tapped into an expanding market: Ever-more-anxious American parents who want their kids climbing that ladder of success AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE!!!

OK, I admit I'm not immune. Last week I learned our five-year-old neighbor is already reading. Now I'm fretting my five-year-old daughter is hopelessly behind. Dear God, does she need tutoring to be up-to-speed in kindergarten?

Worksheets for the wee ones

Perhaps reading the minds of parents like me, in 2007 Kumon introduced Junior Kumon for preschoolers, where twice a week, for an hour at a time, kids ages three to five (and even as young as two) sit in tiny chairs and put their wee noses to the academic grindstone. "Age three is the sweet spot," Joseph Nativo, chief financial officer for Kumon North America, told the New York Times. "But if they’re out of a diaper and can sit still with a Kumon instructor for 15 minutes, we will take them." 

My daughter's preschool teacher Laura is one of those whole child educators who most parents I know consider nothing short of brilliant when it comes to young kids. I wasn't surprised when she told me that inflicting drill and kill exercises on the small set is pointless. Since kids aren't developmentally ready, she explained, worksheets won't make kids more academically advanced. What they benefit most from at this age is play – and lots of it.

Play is the thing

Like other progressive educators who feel strongly about the absolute value of play, Laura believes that playing not only stretches their brains and bodies, but helps children develop essential emotional and social skills they’ll need to be adults who work well with others.

Laura’s not the only naysayer. Many experts - including those cited in the New York Times - comment on the lack of value in having toddlers and preschoolers do rote reading and math exercises. And study after study suggest that kids who are given plenty of chances at free play are more socially and linguistically advanced and better abstract thinkers.

Rather than dutifully tracing over letters and numbers, by simply running around the playground, building with Legos, and engaging in pretend games, kids learn everything from basic physics to more complex language development. Plus, they're getting their shot at enjoying that moment that's gone all too soon: childhood.


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All these parents shelling out big bucks to get their kids into Harvard from preschool are just like the parents paying for pitching lessons and competing in three travel teams trying to thread the needle and have a pro baseball career for the kid. There are simply NOT enough spots to get every child to the absolute top of the pyramid.

When you look around you at the successful people who didn't go to Harvard, or didn't go to the major leagues, there are plenty of extremely talented people with successful careers.

Kumon and Sylvan are money-making affairs. Of COURSE they're going to come up with a way to broaden their appeal, because their market is limited by the age of their students. There will always be "Kumon moms" and I am so thankful I'm not one of them.

When I was 4, I told my mom I was going to go to Harvard. Pretty sure she laughed, and told me to go play outside - sensible advice.

But now parents in NY are scared of the OLSAT and of college acceptance rates that just keep falling. I think you're right that drilling 2 year olds is crazy but the pressure to do it is huge. I really do wonder if there is a way around the urge to push for every advantage with strategies like junior Kumon. Seems as if it would require a drastic shift in applications and education philosophy.

You don't need to spend the money on Kumon for the same impact. Just go to www.mathscore.com and your pre kers can do the same worksheets online for about 10% of the cost of Kumon and you will save both the gas and the tuition.

I own a small tutoring company that was a self-starter 10 years ago. I have families of young children come to me for tutoring, but usually those children have disabilities and we are trying to bring them up to speed with their peers. I never spend more than 30 minutes with a young child at a time. Also, I emphasize play in my learning sessions to reinforce academic concepts. Having a young child do worksheets for an hour is preposterous in my opinion. Worksheets do not teach kids how to learn!

Worksheets for young kids ARE preposterous! And any teacher who has studied education and child development understands that experience and interaction with their surroundings is essential to their brain development. Toddlers learn from actively engaging and applying their knowledge to real experiences. Additionally, a child's attention span is much shorter than that of an adult's (or even a teenager), making the worksheet module a difficult one.

Here's a good page for basic understanding about how a child's brain develops: http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/famsci/fs609w.htm

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