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Dangers at play in uniform preschool learning

Natasha Bita | October 26, 2009 Article from:  The Australian

CHILDCARE centres that make kids wear uniforms and recite the alphabet are robbing them of their childhood, leading educators warned yesterday.

University of New England professor of early childhood Margaret Sims — who has pioneered research into the stress hormone cortisol in young children — said some private schools were offering a school-based curriculum and uniform for three- and four-year-olds.

“They are going dressed up in uniforms and following a primary school routine and I think it’s too early,” she told The Australian yesterday at the start of Children’s Week.

“It’s kind of freaky. Children are worried about achieving and getting in trouble when they get it wrong.

“And parents are really concerned that if their kids aren’t reading and writing before they start school they’re going to be disadvantaged.”

Professor Sims, whose research on stress in babies features in the Life at One documentary on ABC television, said parents were inadvertently “wiring” their children with learning problems.

“Where children do feel stressed and anxious, nervous and worried, their brains get wired up in a way that impairs learning,” she said. “They’re getting an over-scheduled, over-rushed childhood.”

Professor Sims, a keynote speaker at Playgroup Australia’s conference The Power of Play, on the Gold Coast next week, said parents felt “inadequate” if they did not ferry their children to gym classes or music lessons.

“The better alternative would be to sit down, have a cuddle, read a story and go outside and run around together,” she said.

Kathy Walker, director of consultancy Early Life Foundations and author of What’s the Hurry? and Play Matters, also criticised childcare that used uniforms and lessons.

“You’ve got to impress, to look like you’re academically inclined even when you’re three or four,” she said yesterday.

“The childcare centre or preschool that retains a true play-based curriculum is the exception now.

“But rich stimulation is play — not worksheets and reciting the alphabet.”

Ms Walker said children were having to keep up with their parents’ increasingly hurried and harried lives.

“But we have childhood for a reason, so we’re not stressed and rushed,” she said.

“This is a very dangerous time for childhood.”

Brisbane mother Karen Foelz knows the pressure of parents comparing their kids’ milestones, but prefers to let her toddler, Mayanna, learn naturally through play.

“It’s through playing with other kids that they do learn,” she said.

“They’re learning life skills — how to negotiate with each other, how to play with other kids — and they use their imaginations.”

Early childhood consultant Pam Linke, immediate past president of the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health, advises parents to give children the safety and the props to play — without constant guidance and questioning.

“Play helps children master their feelings in play, and that helps them master them in real life,” she said.

“There is a bit of pressure on parents these days to turn everything into a lesson.

“But that takes away from the child’s need to be free emotionally and to have a chance to explore the world for themselves.”

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