My daughter started first grade this year. She is one of the only kids in her class who is not reading fluently. I must admit that there are times when this causes me a lot of anxiety. When I volunteer in the classroom and see the other kid’s zipping through chapter books, or when I hear my daughter ask her older brothers to help her read signs or cereal boxes, I feel a sting of doubt. I wonder if perhaps I’m doing her a disservice by not pushing her more, buying her flashcards, getting her an after school tutor, etc.
But then I remember my own childhood. When I was a kid, kindergarten was a time to learn the alphabet, sing a few songs, have a snack, and go home. The real “learning to read” process didn’t begin until later. By the end of first grade, most kids were sounding out small words and cruising along through beginning readers.
My experience was not unique. According to the Washington Post, only 15% of kindergarteners were reading a decade ago, and less than 5% percent a generation before. Even now in Finland, which has one of the leading education systems of the world, children don’t begin formal education until age 7, and even then, they spend much less time doing formal “school work” than we do in the US.
What gives? Stringent testing in the US has caused teachers to pile on the homework and the academic pressure, all the while lessening recess time. According to the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play, as many as 40 percent of school districts in the United States have reduced recess in the aftermath of the No Child Left Behind act.
There is a whole lot of pressure on kids to spend less time playing and more time doing formal learning.
In this highly competitive era of child rearing, it is easy to get caught up in the race. There have been times when I doubted my laid back approach to education. I start to wonder if perhaps I am doing my daughter a disservice by not pushing her harder. I wonder if after school time should be spent doing more structured work instead of free play.
But then, I see all the amazing things my daughter can do and I feel much more at peace.
Here are five things that keep me from freaking out that my first grade daughter is not reading yet.
1. She can keep herself occupied for hours of pretend play. Sometimes, when I’m passing by her room, I hear her chattering to herself and I just have to stop and listen. The world she has created involves complex characters and diverse situations. She integrates her real life dilemmas into fantastical situations in a way that must be therapeutic.
2. She is able to talk to anyone about anything. I watch her in amazement sometimes as she chats with both adults and children about an array of topics including social justice and religion. She has strong opinions, but she is also respectful of other people’s thoughts. Many conversations end with her saying, “It’s OK for you to believe what you want and for me to believe what I want.”
3. She can stand up for herself and other people. She has no difficulty telling people if they have pushed her too far or if she needs a little space, no matter their age or gender. I’ve even heard her scare off a group of girls that was trying to destroy her (big) brother’s sandcastle.
4. She is a great friend. She is loved by everyone from the popular girls to the “naughty” boys. When a boy in her class told her that he had no friends, she invited him for a play date that very afternoon. Last week some of her girl friends told her that she should not spend so much time with boys, and she calmly told them that she would play with whomever she liked.
When I quiet all the external voices in my head and just look and listen to my remarkable, imaginative, bright daughter, I know that she has a strong foundation. When the time is right, she will learn to read. And when she does…she’ll be unstoppable.