Never too Young for the Race to Nowhere?

Have you heard of Junior Kumon? I hadn’t, until I read an article in the NY Times by Kirsten Luce about this tot-sized tutoring program that’s popping up like dandelions in springtime all over our affluent communities.

Witness this scene described at one New York City branch:

On command, Lily reads aloud the numbers on a worksheet in front of her: “42, 43, 12, 13.” Then she begins to trace them.

“Is that how we write a 12?” her instructor asks. “Erase it.”

“This is a sloppy 12,” she says. “Go ahead: a one and a two. Smaller. Much better.”

Lily moves to 13.

“Neater,” the instructor insists. “Come on, you can do it.” Finally, she resorts to the kind of incentive the barely 3-year-old can appreciate: “You’ll get an extra sticker if you can do a perfect 13.”

Junior Kumon is an “enrichment” program for the toddler to preschool set. To be admitted, a child must be out of diapers and able to sit with an instructor for 15 minutes.The cost is between $200 and $300 a month for two targeted academic sessions a week, plus homework assignments and a recommended reading list.

As elite educational options for older kids are becoming more and more competitive, these academic preparation courses for pipsqueaks are gaining popularity rapidly, and it’s got me worried.

Repetition (sometimes referred to in early education circles as “drill and kill”) is prized at Junior Kumon as the key to developing concentration. Tracing letters and numbers until practice makes perfect is considered the critical step in reading and writing success. Getting a step up on the competition well before kindergarten is the brass ring they’re reaching for.

But children under 5 aren’t developmentally ready to perform repetitive, academic tasks. Their brains just aren’t wired for it. We’re asking them to focus and learn in a way that is counter to the early, rapid growth and connections happening minute by minute in their neural pathways.

What they are primed for is to be little sponges, absorbing the experiential world around them and strengthening the connections in their brains that are the foundation of language and learning.

The two hemispheres of the brain learn differently. The right brain tends to learn things as a whole rather than in parts. Concepts and pictures are absorbed easily, but the right brain struggles with details, repetition and practice.

The left brain is more analytical and methodical, breaking new information down into steps to be learned in a more linear way. Roughly, the two sides of the brain represent creative and academic learning, but both are important and serve to connect pathways that will be critical to future development.

Language and number skills can be learned a variety of ways through conversation, songs, rhymes, reading, music, story telling and much more. Early stimulation sets the stage for how children will learn throughout life. A child’s experiences establish the wiring of his nervous system.

So instead of flash cards and rote learning, surround your child with language. Instead of addition and subtraction drills, chatter with them about what you’re doing. Sing to them, play music, tell stories and read books.

Ask toddlers and preschoolers to guess what will come next in a story. Play word games. Ask questions that require more than a yes or no answer, like “Imagine if …?” Ask them to picture things that have happened in the past or might happen in the future.

Provide opportunities to explore and play, and have plenty of reading and writing materials, including crayons and paper, books, magazines, and toys. These are key pre-reading experiences and have nothing to do with memorization or worksheets.

Educational experts agree that while programs like Junior Kumon may not harm young children, they don’t do much to help them excel either. By the early elementary years the skill levels of the early learners tend to level out, matching those of kids who take a more traditional learning path.

While this is undoubtedly true, programs like these can’t help but ramp up the pressure on children and parents, priming them for competition in the zero sum game earlier and earlier. It can’t be long before we offer franchised prep courses for preschool admissions interviews and paid consultants to help walk us through the process.

Do we really want to add strollers and pacifiers to the race to nowhere?



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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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5 responses to “Never too Young for the Race to Nowhere?”

  1. Mudrunning

    yep. Absolutely. No one is never to young for a race.

  2. Hazel M. Wheeler

    Thank you, for so many reasons, for this article.

    Increasingly, as a preschool teacher, I see ever more parents focused on the ‘academics’ of preschool. Formerly, parents were more interested in how well their children were learning to play together and navigating the more social aspects of preschool; academic learning was intrinsic to the program, but more or less considered “gravy” by a lot of parents. In the last few years, the three “R”s have been creeping into many parents’ preschool priorities. While it is easy to offer what many of us call “invitations” (activities which make these academic concepts relevant) a child can only truly learn them when their brains are ready. Empasis on this style of “drill and kill” teaching also removes children from what is far more valuable for their learning and development: free play time with other children, time to practice self-help and self-care skills, and the opportunities to play socially with adult support. When children have support in these areas, how much easier kindergarten is, when their brains are more ready for the academic development the teacher is presenting. It’s all in the timing!

  3. Andrea

    I also came across this article in the NYT and was completely shocked! I can’t imagine heaping the burden of achievement on my children like this. It is one thing to honor hard work, persistence, and working towards a goal and entirely another to ask children to put their childhood to the side so that they might be able to compete with their peers. Thanks for passing it along to others!

  4. mariona

    Thank you so much, so timing.
    I was about to enrol my daughter into Kumon method when i came across this page. In back of my mind i knew its not how i encourage my daughter to learn, by exploring, by choosing, playing with her friends and enjoying herself…. Why should learning be devoid of all of that as if ‘the important stuff in life’ should be done ‘seriously, mechanically and robotically’ denying my daughter of her own spontaneity…. My daughter loves learning. And the use of the two sides of the brain is crucial.
    Thanks again for this article, it came at the right time and it helped me to follow my intuition.

  5. mariona

    Hi, thanks for this article, so timing!

    I was about to enrol my daughter into kumon, when i came across this article, and i realised how in the back of my mind i knew i wasn’t making the right choice.
    I encourage my daughter to learn through exploring, being curious, taking the iniciative and follow her own rythms and well trusting her own intuition… So why should children be devoid of their creative side as if learning ‘the important stuff in life’ should be done robotically, mechanically and denied of spontaneity. Learnig with both sides of the brain is crucial for children, and everybody actually, and when we do there are no limits to our learning and enjoyment in life.
    Thanks for helping me act consistently, following my intuition.

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