Long before the technology existed to allow us a real-time view inside the developing brain, a Swiss psychologist by the name of Jean Piaget explored the developmental patterns behind language and cognition in childhood. As one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the 20th century, he was a prolific writer and a pioneer in giving a developmental context to the human tasks of thinking and learning.
Keen observation was one of Piaget’s gifts, so it’s not surprising that he quickly noticed a trend among the Americans he spoke to. It was a question that took on many forms, but always focused in from the same viewpoint. The query became so common that he referred to it simply as “the American question”. After presenting his work, a detailed framework displaying how perception and cognition evolve as a child matures, Piaget could count on an American raising the question, “Yes, but how can we get them to do it faster?”
The question must have been exasperating to a man who seemed to relish the slow percolation of thought. This was a man who regularly wore hobnailed hiking boots – even to work – because the walks he took in the foothills of the Alps to mentally untangle new concepts were so common. Child psychologist Dr. David Elkind recalled once “playing hooky” from a conference in California, leaving the planned events to enjoy the beauty of the nearby beach instead. Upon his arrival, he found Piaget had slipped out of the conference as well, explaining to his friend that he had retreated to the beach “on the track of an idea.”
This meandering process of understanding was reflected in the Piagetian theory that the mistakes children made in intelligence tests did not actually indicate an inferior intellect; the errors simply indicated they were at a different point on the path of thought. Asking Piaget if there was anything Americans could do to help their children move along more quickly must have landed about the same as asking if there was any way he could shorten his daily walks.
Piaget ultimately responded to “the American question” with an earnest counter-question: “Is it a good thing to accelerate…?” Piaget conceded that perhaps children were capable of performing tasks earlier, but questioned whether that was the most desirable end goal. He was reintroducing the eternal question of whether education’s value is simply in its product alone or also in its process — or perhaps more pointedly, whether we can truly have a product at all without that messy, time-sucking process.
It’s fitting that Piaget’s work itself demonstrates the need for that long and winding road. His early research methods wouldn’t pass scrutiny by today’s standards and the work he spent decades of his life producing certainly cannot stand alone as a final product in the twenty-first century. His errors were not a sign of lesser intelligence, simply that the science was at a different point on its journey. Piaget’s work shattered preconceptions and started the rough-hewn phase of a sculpture that scientists have spent decades refining with more precise tools. The process he gave his life to – the twists and turns, errors and discoveries – continues to serve as a critical buttress to the work of developmental psychology today. His name dots the literature and his fingerprints are all over current studies. Yes, but could we arrive where we are in cognitive science faster? No. Even with his work’s shortcomings, we couldn’t get where we are now without Piaget. The process continues to lead us to the product.
Jean Piaget died in 1980, but the American question endured, as did the Piagetian response from many who doubted whether speeding up necessarily equated getting ahead. For the four decades that have followed, it seems that the American question has become the American experiment.
“How can we get them to do it faster?”
This experiment has been most widely documented in kindergarten. Some teachers and parents have observed that in pushing content down, many staples of early childhood were simply being pushed out. They reported the disappearance of dress-up areas, sand tables, and blocks (some literally thrown out with the trash). Recesses and free play were reduced or eliminated altogether. The buzzwords of “exploration” and “curiosity” seemed to be replaced by “standardization” and “rigor“.
Whether the pressure was coming from the schools to the parents or the other way around, by the early 2000s it was widely acknowledged that kindergarten had simply become the new first grade. It wasn’t until 2016 that researchers put the claim to an empirical test.
University of Virginia researchers, Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Anna Rorem took existing data about kindergarten teachers’ beliefs and practices and compared the answers from 1998 with those from 2010. The scientists expected to find a shift but remarked that even they were shocked to see how pronounced it really was. Among other markers, they found a dramatic migration towards increased reading, writing, and math expectations, increased worksheet and flashcard use, and a decrease in play and exploration, illustrated by the significant drop in the use of sensory tables, dress-up areas, science activities, and art activities.
Clearly, learning and play do not have to live a mutually exclusive existence. As Dr. Bassok commented in reflecting on her team’s study, “It certainly doesn’t have to be an ‘either/or’ scenario, where academics crowd out everything else, but I worry that in practice, this is what is happening in many classrooms.”
Piaget’s question comes ringing back. “Is it a good thing to accelerate? Perhaps what has been observed in this American experiment is exactly what he was warning against when he answered the American question. If accelerating means throwing out the foundation, who does it actually benefit?
Bassok, Daphna, et al. “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” AERA Open, Jan. 2016, doi:10.1177/2332858415616358.
Bliss, Joan. “Looking Back: Recollections of Jean Piaget.” Looking Back: Recollections of Jean Piaget | The Psychologist, The British Psychological Society, May 2010.
Breen, Audrey. “U.Va. Researchers Find That Kindergarten Is the New First Grade.” UVA Today, University of Virginia, 29 Jan. 2014, news.virginia.edu/content/uva-researchers-find-kindergarten-new-first-grade.
Curwood, Jen Scott. “What Happened to Kindergarten?” Instructor, vol. 117, no. 1, Aug. 2007, pp. 28–32.
Elkind, David. Giants in the Nursery: a Biographical History of Developmentally Appropriate Practice. Redleaf Press, 2015.
Hall, Elizabeth. “A Conversation with Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder.” Psychology Today, 3, 25-32, 54-56, 1970.
More from Not Just Cute:
The Vital Importance of a Strong Foundation: Why Early Learning Matters
Rigor in Early Education. “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Keep them Passionately Curious
On Developmentally Appropriate Practice and Why We Don’t Push Kids Down the Stairs
Speaking and Training: Online or In-Person (when available)
More is not always better. Faster is not always quality. Growth has benefit and joys of its own, 40 years and retiring – still my administration won’t listen.
40 years! That’s amazing! What a gift you’ve given to generations of children!
Thanks, they have blessed me.
Congratulations Becky! I started in 1980 and retired in June 2019. I wasn’t quite ready to retire, but in hindsight ,my style of playful kindergarten wouldn’t have translated well online😂.
Margaret fowke says
I strongly agree that it is not a good idea to throw out the foundation of learning (play) in Kindergarten in favour of the “rigor” in academics. I taught Kindergarten for 21 years in Ontario, Canada. Now I am teaching grade one. Play is still an important part of my program (1/4 of the day). We need to allow time for development to unfold and support it by noticing and naming the learning.
So wonderful that you incorporate play into first grade. So needed and too often hard to find!
Thanks for this interesting insight into the significance of Piaget’s thinking. And for advocating, as always, and as he did, for the importance of early childhood.
Thank you so much for reading and advocating as well, Louise!
Lorna F Lyerly says
How interesting that I should receive this article and the opportunity to respond.
First of all, I must add that our son was diagnosed high functioning autism 2 years ago and ADHD last year, and just finished K5 at our local public school. Upon being tested by the school system, was determined that he should do well in a mainstream classroom. (Autism and ADHD diagnosis’ have reached an all time high in the U.S. and statistics show it has become very prominent in our school system.)
I do realize there are gifted children that learn easily and grasp academics quickly, however so much of the learning process is built on the skill of socialization and this is learned in a child’s early years.
Based on my observation with my son over the coarse of the past year, it became apparent to me that yes, they are taught at such an accelerated rate and often do grasp the material temporarily, but are not given an adequate amount of time to absorb and digest it before moving on to the next phase of the subject. They need, in my opinion, a proper amount of time to drill, use, digest and absorb what they have learned before moving on. The acceleration has invaded the play time that they need to fully develop those social skills that are so very important in their developmental growth before tackling academics.
I believe this is why so many of our children are graduating from high school with such weak reading skills…or not able to read at all. If they do not learn to read well, the rest of their learning skills suffer tremendously.
I’m sure there are many that would disagree with me, which I would understand and truly respect their opinion. I am simply stating my own opinion and the opinion of some of my retired teacher friends.
I will close in saying that our son will be repeating K5 again next year (and utilizing special education assistance) as he did fall behind and could not keep up with the pace of his class in the mainstream classroom.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to express my opinion.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. Your son is so fortunate to have you as such a strong advocate for him!
Sara Scoggan says
I remember reading somewhere about a second grade teacher who had to write a whole lesson plan for a “muli-modal pumpkin unit” (or something to that effect)just so she could justify the time she wanted to give her students to make paper pumpkins in the fall.
I am a librarian rather than a classroom teacher, but I tell parents all the time to focus on creating a truly enjoyable and rich learning environment at home…and then just let the learning happen during the play.
Such wonderful advice to start with the environment at home! Librarians are awesome!
My daughter just finished Kindergarten and although I love the school and it’s expeditionary principals with more of a hands on approach to learning, I still found that they were sitting at desks more than they were up playing, occupying their time throughout the day with so much busy work, cutting/pasting/coloring/filling out pages in work books. Although my daughter did well and learned a great deal, I couldn’t ignore her constant complaints about ‘having to work so much’ and her desire to simply play more. It spoke quite loudly to a place inside me that demanded I listen more deeply to what she was communicating to me, and after our homeschool regimen during the covid period, I got to see and observe for myself how this classroom style of learning was not exactly suited for my kindergartener who wanted nothing more than to play outside all day… in nature, in the elements, in the dirt, on our 5 acres, in her treehouse, in our garden, with her chickens, with her dog, with her little sister, chasing butterflies, catching lizards and looking for worms, looking them up and learning about them, finding books and activities and all kinds of diy projects of her own interest that she wants to explore and learn about, researching her questions and all her ‘why’s’ and ‘how comes’ and ‘what does it mean’ and ‘what are these’ inquiries throughout the day, all dressed up in one costume or another, playing, pretending, make believing, exploring her curiosity, imagination and creativity… in her own unique way and in her own kind of rhythm and flow. The freer she feels to do and to explore what comes naturally to her the easier it is for me to encourage and guide her through a style of learning that feels fun, that engages her whole being and that makes her happy and excited to learn. So we’ve decided to homeschool and we’re all super excited to embark on this new learning adventure together! I realize that not every family has the choice or capability or even the means to do this with or for their children, so I feel very blessed that I personally am able to, but it is my hope for those who must send or that chose for their children to attend school that instead of kindergarten being the new 1st grade that it be more like an advanced kind of preschool where 5 year olds are not forced to sit still at tables and desks doing busy work and workbooks, trying desperately to listen and concentrate and control their natural urges to ‘be 5 year olds,’ missing out on the learning that comes so naturally thru different styles of play and that they really do enjoy so much more. And that’s just kindergarten. I feel that the entire education system needs to be restructured and I have no idea if or when we’ll see that, but it is my hope that someday that changes for the future generations! Thanks for the post and for all that you do ❤️
Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I think there have been a lot of interesting things to observe in this unusual and challenging time. I’m so curious to see how the system will adapt. It seems inevitable that there will be both challenges and strengths in the innovations that are bound to come. Best of luck on your homeschool journey!
Bonnie Hester says
I would argue that children lose out on the possibility of deep learning when their developmental stage is ignored in an accelerated approach.
When foundational interactive learning activities (play)are left too soon, children are denied growing into a sense of themselves as successful, self motivated, learners who continue to have questions that compel investigation.This is appropriate rigor!
For too many kids in kindergarten today, the need for regimentation in order to move them through a teacher directed curriculum leads to superficial learning and eventual burnout.
Great point about the soft skills like the sense of self, motivation, regulation, curiosity. SO important. Sometimes the things that matter most are the hardest to measure. Unfortunately, that sometimes leads them to be less recognized or less valued.
I actually cried reading this. This is what I believe with all my heart. Yes we can teach them faster; but should we? I answer that emphatically “No”. Students are coming to us with less social skills and an inability to communicate. How better to teach that than through social play. If we build those foundation skills strong enough by taking the time to do so we will have amazing results. Never has any great work of art, world wonder or natural wonder been built with speed in mind. These little ones are our greatest works of art and natural wonders, so lets take our time to build them up.
Your reply gave me goosebumps. Yes, let’s take our time with our “greatest works of art and natural wonders”.
32 years in the classroom and what I see is the push for more rigor has resulted in the need for academic intervention, behavior plans, OT interventions, counselors for social/emotional support, and the list goes on..and on…and on. I doubt any of this would be necessary if children were allowed to play and teachers were allowed to provide joyful, playful learning opportunities. May we all revisit Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
I think others have noticed what you’re describing as well. I’m curious about the interventions that could have been prevented with developmentally appropriate experiences.
I’m sadden by the loss of play in kindergarten. It worries me that young children in kindergarten are not developing core language and problem solving abilities along with social and emotional skills that will be critical as education progresses. It’s like building a house from the top down. Stress, anxiety, behaviors, even depression are more prevalent in kindergarten – yes, kindergarten! The “rigor” is too much. Studies show that a child’s first school experience can determine his or her success for later years – our educational system is setting many kindergarteners up for failure. Children need play, they need to socialize, talk, laugh, giggle and run! Have you ever tried to speed up the process of homemade bread? A process takes time for BEST RESULTS.
One more thing, any physical education teacher can tell you there are numerous studies supporting activities before academics is a good thing! Say yes to Recess!
The top-down approach worries me too. When you apply it to the house-building process it becomes so obvious.
Janelle Hendricks says
Aaahhh! I hear the ringing bell of truth and realization in your last statement. You have spoken and written before, time and again, on the importance of building a strong foundation. I’ve been reading Lisa Murphy’s books “on Play: The Foundation of Children’s Learning” and “on Being Child Centered.” Especially in PLAY (I haven’t finished CHILD CENTERED) she preaches the same truth you profess. Children need to have a strong foundation for the “house of academics” to be built upon.
The processes that happens when children are engaged in playful learning are preparing them for all they need to know how to navigate in order to learn. Listening to one another. Taking turns. Sitting still. Holding a pencil. We early childhood educators know that children do things again and again until the feel they have mastered a concept, skill, or how to handle an emotion they play out repeatedly in pretend situations. Why can’t we take our cues from them and allow them to play and learn until they are ready to build on their foundation? If we slow down with them and meander through their play with them, as Piaget meandered through his thoughts on his walks, we will see what he saw. We will see how much they are growing, learning and preparing themselves for their future! And we will be able to help gird up the foundation they are slowly and methodically building for their future.
Maybe we can make them do it/learn it faster, but will they want to keep learning and doing? Will their learning stand? “Is it a good thing to accelerate?”
Playful learning is SO powerful! You state it so well. Children need us to allow them the time they need to build that foundation.
I retired from teaching after almost 40 years, and I gasped when I read the part of the article that talked about throwing away precious playthings! My kindergarten classroom had an incredible collection of blocks, toys, dress-up clothes, and interesting junk(apparently called “loose parts” nowadays). When I left my classroom at the end of July they literally loaded truckloads of stuff to the town dump. 😭 The decor of the room is now open concept gray and black shabby farmhouse chic.😥
Oh, Bonnie! That’s heartbreaking!