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Rethinking Kindergarten Readiness (Denita Dinger) Transcript

Teacher Tom’s Podcast – Episode 11

Rethinking Kindergarten Readiness (Denita Dinger)

Denita Dinger: We’re forcing writing on little hands that are not ready. Too many early childhood professionals don’t realize writing begins with the core, standing on swings and climbing up the slide. Those are my two indicators that, hey, they’re ready. Their body is ready for writing. Now, let’s wait and see what’s going to motivate them to write.

Teacher Tom Hobson: Hi, it’s Teacher Tom and welcome to my podcast where we take play seriously. In this episode, I’m talking with my friend, Denita Dinger. Denita is a preschool teacher and proprietor of the educational and parenting consulting practice, Listen to the Children. In many ways, her story mirrors my own. She uses her own experiences working with young children and all that young children have taught her to inspire and empower educators and care providers to, in turn, empower children.

Her trainings, coaching, and public speaking are designed to help us understand the vital, joyful learning found in child led play. Maybe most importantly, she helps teachers, administrators, and parents gain the tools necessary to understand the true value of play and to stand up for what is in the best interest of children.

I asked Denita to talk with us today about the misguided notion surrounding what’s often called kindergarten or school readiness. Increasingly, academic and developmentally inappropriate practices have emerged in our schools over the past decades, which can and do harm children without producing any measurable advances in learning.

In this episode, Denita and I talk about the challenges and what we can do instead to ensure that our youngest citizens receive the kind of foundational learning that they truly need in order to thrive. Hi, Denita. Thanks for joining me on the show.

Denita: Oh, thanks for having me, Tom. I’m so excited.

Teacher Tom: So let’s dig into this idea of kindergarten, or sometimes it’s called school readiness. You know, if you search the internet, you’re going to find all kinds of checklists for things children should be able to do or standards they should meet or assessments that parents or educators can do. But as far as I know, there’s no agreed upon definition of what readiness means for one thing. And yet at the same time, there’s this huge amount of money and emotional energy put into this sort of amorphous concept. So maybe you could just talk about what’s going on here.

Denita: You know, I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know how it started, but all I know is this idea of kindergarten readiness or school readiness is getting in the way of true readiness, of empowering children with the skills that they’re going to need much, much longer years past kindergarten, years past school.

And I am not a brain development expert by any means, but I do believe there’s a window of time where those opportunities close for like the most powerful development, like a perseverance, that idea of determination, independent thinking, all those things, it has to happen during the early years. And what I see in early childhood programs is the times that are truly full of the most meaningful learning for children are rushed and hurried because they need to get to table time. We need to get to writing time. We need to get to circle time.

Prime example here. I live in South Dakota. There is nothing more powerful for getting bodies and brains ready. And by ready, I mean much bigger than kindergarten, much bigger than school readiness, getting snow pants on, getting boots on. It involves a lot of failing. It involves a lot of perseverance. It involves a lot of intrinsic motivation and intrinsic pride that yes, I did it. I find that so interesting when my children get ready to go outside for winter, they go up the steps to the entryway. I grab a broom and I start sweeping.

I had a student teacher with me and she just looked at me and she said, you don’t go up with them. I go, no, but I listen, listen. You could hear children asking for what they need. That true readiness right there. I know adults who do not know how to ask for what they need. Yes. I think we can all agree on that. I hear children reciting snow pants first, snow pants first, because as they go up the steps, I say snow pants first. The children know I will help with mitten number two.

Teacher Tom: Okay.

Denita: I do not help with anything else. They are responsible for it all. I hear failing. I hear, I did it. Lots of pride and ownership. But that asking for what you need and the teamwork from peers is so powerful.

Teacher Tom: Yeah.

Denita: Where my student teacher was on days, she wasn’t with me, because my school is just three mornings a week. So she spent time at another early childhood program. I have 12 children and myself at this place. There were 19 when they went outside. They were told, hurry, hurry, hurry guys, because we got to get outside and play because we have to get back inside for table time. So the 19 children sat down and waited while one child at a time went out in the hallway and the other teacher put their things on for them.

Teacher Tom: Oh my God.

Denita: Then sent them back into the room to sit and wait. So there was one teacher in the room, one teacher in the hallway. No teamwork, no motor development involved in struggling through snow pants. So anyway, the whole point of that is the fact that we are taking away opportunities for true readiness to develop in children with this mistaken idea of kindergarten readiness and focusing on letters and numbers. It’s not about letters and numbers. I’ve got the proof. I mean, we are so misled.

Teacher Tom: Okay, you said you’ve got the proof.

Denita: Yeah, I have a presentation called Empowering Children with True Readiness. It’s also called We Are Doing It Wrong, Kindergarten Readiness. But that title sometimes turns people away. So I let people choose which title for this very same information. Every single one of my students fails kindergarten assessment.

Teacher Tom: Really?

Denita: Every single one fails.

Teacher Tom: So what do you say when a parent says to you or an educator says you’re not doing your job right? What do you say to them?

Denita: You know what? I have never had anyone say that to me because I so thoroughly educate my families.

Teacher Tom: Okay.

Denita: My families understand. They understand. I take the time to educate my parents because children can educate themselves. If anyone needs a curriculum, it’s parents. And I’m not talking bad on parents. I mean, think of all the missed information they get, all the information they have to sort through, all the things they’re being told from so many people, right?

And we’re the ones that need to stand up and say, look, would you rather have your child know all their letters, all their numbers, or would you rather have your child fail and not throw a complete lose their mind, temper tantrum? Would you rather that they’re able to take a deep breath in and go, well, that didn’t work and try it again.

And then when it doesn’t work again, perhaps go, hmm, you know, I better ask for some teamwork from somebody. Maybe I can collaborate. Like what a great life skill that is. Collaboration with other people asking for help when you need it. You know, which would you rather have? What is more important? To a young child, you know, and if they get that foundation, all the rest will pile right on top.

Teacher Tom: You’ve mentioned so many readiness things that I want to get back to all of these perseverance, self-motivation, critical thinking, you know, getting yourself dressed. Taking care of your basic physical needs, collaboration, all of those things. But first I want to address that what I see is a lot of fear mongering about children. And the phrase that I always see is they’re falling behind. Right. And it’s almost always around this idea of literacy or mathematics.

Denita: Yes.

Teacher Tom: And first of all, I guess you already said this once, but is it important that preschoolers focus on letters and numbers, you know, reading and math, or how do human brains actually get ready for literacy?

Denita: You know, I believe they get ready for literacy by being surrounded by literacy. I believe they get ready for literacy by having opportunities for their body and their brains to be ready. We’re forcing writing on little hands that are not ready. Too many early childhood professionals don’t realize writing begins with the core.

Standing on swings and climbing up the slide. Those are my two indicators that, hey, they’re ready. Their body is ready for writing. Now let’s wait and see what’s going to motivate them to write. They need their own reason, their own purpose. And what I have found is if you give children that ample opportunity to lead their own play, to move their bodies as much as possible and get all the brain, all the connections of that whole entire body.

And then you patiently wait for that child, that moment where that child’s like, Denita, show me how to write mom, show me how to write this. Or sometimes they just simply do it. We are wasting a child’s time with all this tracing crap, all this beads and laces, all this finger stuff, when simply, if we let them play and develop their bodies and then when they are motivated, that motivation is huge.

A child will be able to simply write. And so that getting ready for literacy happens just through their play. It happens through us reading to children. It happens to us connecting words to meaningful experiences, getting them excited. And you know, Peter Gray talks a lot about the intellectual understanding. We are teaching letters to children before they have the intellectual understanding of what they’re even for.

Teacher Tom: Right.

Denita: Right? A. We isolate a letter. Letters are not meant to be isolated. They’re quite boring isolated. They’re meant to work together. You know, I’ve got all kinds of letter “toys” in my environment, but I wait for children to discover them. It happens so naturally. And then they’ll start putting letters together and whether it’s me modeling going, look, you made the word and maybe I’ll put them just together and make cats. Well, then a child will add a letter to it and say, what does it say now? Cato. And they’ll add a letter to it. What does it say now? You made the word catub.

In that process, they’re learning how powerful letters are. Think of that. When I add one letter to a word, it changes the word. And I think that knowledge needs to come first, that intellectual understanding. Letters go together and they make words.

Teacher Tom: You were talking about making sure letters are in your classroom, some literacy. One time, we had an alphabet puzzle and it had all the different letters, the alphabet, and one of the letters got lost, the letter P I think it was. And so, you know, you can’t really use that puzzle anymore. So I just tossed all those letters out on the playground for the kids to play with. And before long, they were going, this is my letter because they started identifying my name is Gerald and there’s a G.

Denita: Yes. And that’s how it begins. I had two boys, Pierce and Ryan. They became interested in letters through each other’s names. So Pierce is now in the third grade. Ryan is now in the fourth grade. Pierce, to this day, no matter how much teachers correct him, insists on using a capital R in his name, Pierce, because it’s how he associates that with his friendship with Ryan. And so he still spells it capital P, lowercase I E, capital R, lowercase C and E. And it’s like, who cares? Right? It’s okay.

And it’s how this child came into letters. He was on vacation, eating pretzels. He bit a pretzel and realized it made the letter R. After he took the bite out, what was left was letter R. He put it on his tummy because he’s sitting by the pool and had his mom take a picture of it, said send it to Denita. She’s going to want to know that I made Ryan’s R out of a pretzel. Those words right there, and this isn’t about relationships, but the fact that children always word it that way to their parents. Denita’s going to want to know.

Can I talk about a motivation story real quick, Tom?

Teacher Tom: Yes, please. I’d love to hear it.

Denita: It’s one of my favorites. So I had a parent. This comes in with educating parents. So this ties in. I had a parent who was concerned. This was Oliver’s second year in my school. And Oliver could write his name, like if he made a picture for grandma, he would sign it, Oliver. He loved, he was very proud of his name, but he did no writing in his play, nothing extra.

And so his mom came to me and she said, okay, Denita, I just want to make sure I’m understanding you correctly because you’ve taught us so many things, but I don’t need to set all of her down at home and make him write. Is that what you’re saying? I said, yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. She’s like, okay, this is rocking my world. She said, because it’s, it’s so different than anything I’ve learned. But everything else you’ve taught me; I’m seeing the results of. So I believe wholeheartedly in it. Just wanted to make sure.

I just know kindergarten is much harder than it was when my older children were in it. And so then I said, Mindy, you’re focusing on what he can’t do. Let’s talk about what he can. Body. He can stand on the swings. He can climb up the slide. He can throw, he can catch, he can run, he can balance. Core to shoulders, to biceps, to forearms, to hands, to fingers. This child’s connected. He has hands. He can draw. He can draw what he wants. That tells me those hands can do what his brain is telling them to do. Okay. That’s all I need. He’s fine.

Let’s talk about brain. This child had perseverance. He’s an independent thinker. He knew when to ask for help when he needed it, but he understood if I’m not good at something, it’s okay because I keep trying, I get better. That’s what children need to have a solid understanding of. I said, he’s got everything except a reason. In his four years of life, there’s no reason for him to write more than Oliver. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what’s going to motivate this child to write.

So how about I meet you in the middle? Let’s wait till February. If by February, he’s not doing more writing and you really feel the push to do more writing at home, you go ahead and do that. I will continue to follow his lead here at school. Well, all those months go by, no more writing. This child-built banana factories all the time out of rain gutters and balls. There’s no writing involved in that play, right?

So February rolls around. I said, well, what did you decide? Well, you know, he’s capable of so many more things like his social emotional skills are way better than his older siblings. We cannot believe what this child is capable of doing. I want to know what’s going to finally motivate him to write.

Fast forward to March, his older sister turned 12. She had a birthday party. All her friends are over at the house. They’re down in the basement. Oliver’s hanging with the girls. He comes running up the steps and he goes, Mom, I’m in love with one of Gracie’s friends. I want to write her a love letter. Boom!

Motivated by love, this child. And I educate my parents so they know what to do because the adult’s instinct is to hold that hand and make that hand write letters. And I absolutely forbid my families from doing that. You get your own paper; Oliver gets his own paper. You have your own writing utensil; Oliver has his own. He tells you what he wants to write, you write it on paper, he copies it.

She hits me in the arm and goes, you are so right. She said, Denita! It was as if he has been writing for a year. He could form every letter perfectly. She said the only letter he struggled with was a lowercase g. He needed her to break that. Isn’t that beautiful, Tom?

Teacher Tom: Well, it’s such a great story. And it’s not the first time I’ve heard that about literacy, about how it seems like it’s not there. And then suddenly, especially with the eight- and nine-year-olds, well, I guess that’s the question I have. Those kids of yours who go on and they don’t pass the kindergarten readiness test, do they stay behind forever?

Denita: Five weeks, typically five weeks into the school year, they leap to the top. I had this child and she was determined, not ready for kindergarten and our school district has summer school before kindergarten. Now this is no little thing. It is eight weeks of a child’s summer, four mornings a week, four hours. This is robbing children of where the true meaningful learning happens. Correct? Like it is so incredibly wrong.

And her mom said, what do you think? And I said, well, what do you think, I think? And she said, hell no. And I’m like, absolutely. This was the third child I’d had from this family. So she knew me well, I said, you marched down to the school and you tell them absolutely no.

So then they said, she’ll need to do pre-K. And so the mom asked me again, what do you think? I’m like, no, this child, she might be the most “ready” with life skills of any student I’ve ever had. I said, absolutely not. She is ready for kindergarten. Her beginning of the year test scores, Tom, were above, above what they needed to be.

Yet so much weighs on this kindergarten assessment that lasts for 15 minutes with a stranger. It is so wrong. First of all, it was wrong before, but it’s even more wrong now that they’re threatening to take away summer from children who fail that assessment. And then five weeks into the school year, this child that is not writing new, like eight letters, she scored 52 out of a possible 160 points on kindergarten assessment.

Five weeks into the school year, she is writing, she is reading, and she was in a classroom who the teacher, her students go to my school. And so this is one of the kindergarten teachers that closes her door, blacked out her windows until she convinced the principal what she was doing was right, and allows for a lot of playtime, a full hour in the afternoon, which is not common in many kindergartens. So not even a high-pressured kindergarten classroom, five weeks.

Teacher Tom: So I guess the question I have is, what is the harm? Have you seen any harm done by this focus on readiness skills? Is there harm to children? Are they harmed by it?

Denita: That is a really common question I get, is what happens when they go to kindergarten. Denita, if you don’t do all these things, you know, people have circle time.

Teacher Tom: Right.

Denita: In the name of, well, children need to sit and listen.

Teacher Tom: Right.

Denita: No have circle time, have a gathering time because it builds community. Yes, it builds relationships. Yes. But if your goal is I have to do circle time because children need to sit and listen and learn how to do that, please stop having circle time. Your goal should be relationships and it should be community. That is it, right? Everything they truly need to be successful in a developmentally appropriate kindergarten develops through play.

I got an email years and years ago from a gal. She had heard me speak for six hours, emailed me the next day, Denita, how do you get two-year-olds to stand in a line? My response, you don’t. If you are expecting two-year-olds to stand in a line, you are going to hate your job. And that’s going to reflect off on these children. So I said, what is your motivation here? Why do you think you need to make two-year-olds stand in a line? Well, my director said that when they’re in kindergarten, they need to stand in a line. So we need to start that now.

And Tom, that mentality is so common. We need to meet two-year-olds exactly where they are. And not only that they’re two, but that this is Sam, and Sam has had these life experiences, Sam has experienced this trauma, Sam has this situation at home, Sam has older siblings, younger, I mean it all matters. We have to stop looking at children just based on years, right? Our expectations have to meet each individual child and let Sam, Jack, Joe, whoever be two with every ounce of what they’ve gathered in their life experience. And they’ll take that to be the best three-year-old they can be.

And then same thing again, let them lead. Let them find their own interests. Let them express that to you to be the best four-year-old, best five-year-old, best six-year-olds. And I say this every time I speak. I think I’ve told this story and the whole place is nodding, but I know that 50% of the participants are going to go back and they’re going to tell two-year-olds and three-year-olds and four-year-olds to stand in the line because they’re going to need to do it when they’re in kindergarten. They’re going to make them sit through a circle time because they’re going to need it when they get to kindergarten.

So I flip it. I flipped the story just a little bit. And I say, now, what if the United States government decides, you know what, when you are 78 years old, you need to go to school. The curriculum, nursing home readiness, because let’s face it, pretty soon, you’re going to be going into the nursing home. So you know, there’ll be circle time, and you’ll do these, you know, you got to get ready to use a walker, because you’re 78 years old, you’re going to be using a walker pretty soon, and we want you to be successful when you go to the nursing home.

So you’ll all stand up and you’ll lift, lift, reach, set, step, lift, reach, set, step. Then you know the fancy walkers with the brakes that you have to squeeze, you have to do grip strengthening exercises. You’ll do beads and laces and all those kinds of things, strengthening the grips. And then those walkers usually have a seat that you have to flip. So your circle time routine can have the little ditty flip, then sit, then sit. Then you won’t break a hip.

We want you to be successful in the nursing home. It’s ridiculous, but stop and think about it. So is making two-year-olds stand in the line because when they’re in kindergarten four years from now, which, let’s pause that and talk about that fact that today’s current kindergarten in the United States is more appropriate for your average six-year-old child. And having children wait is not holding them back. It is pushing them ahead. Those families that are able to gift their child with an extra year are actually pushing their child ahead.

Teacher Tom: No, I agree with you 100%. Okay. So if we want our kids to get those true foundational skills, those physical foundational skills, which you’ve talked a lot about really well, perseverance, self-motivation, critical thinking, all those things that you talked about, what should they spend their time doing?

Denita: Well, I happen to have a big, long list right here, Tom. Adults have got to stop doing stuff for children. Adults have to let go. We do the work that should belong to children. We create environments with open ended materials, but we create invitations that close up the open endedness all the time.

So here’s the list. I’ll just go through it. Preventing risk. We need to let go of preventing risk and understanding that risky play is safety play. My children do not aim for anything less than the ceiling. They’re building a tower. They’re building it to the ceiling. So it’s my job to have materials that can be built to the ceiling, but if they collapse and fall on a child, are not going to hurt them whatsoever.

It’s my job to provide something safe for them to get up that high. We use a ladder in my program and it is allowed in the regulations that I have to follow and I make sure that ladder is out. I make sure when I have a licensor come to my program, they see that. Children are safer on the ladder than the average farmer. So we need to let go of preventing risk. We need to let go of believing children only learn when an activity is planned by an adult.

And I used to be of that belief. I used to plan all these things. Learning happened because of me. It didn’t happen around me. Like now all the learning happens around me. I have really nothing to do with it. I prepare an environment that’s just rich with opportunities. And those opportunities make other adults go, what is that? There’s very few toys, just like at your former school, Tom. It’s junk to anybody else’s eyes. But that provides opportunities for children to be resourceful. It provides opportunity for independent thinking, all the good things.

Instead of using the term activities, which I believe the term activity instantly closes our minds to goals and objectives. I prefer opportunities. I see everything in the environment as opportunities or possibilities. And to me, that’s just changes the adult perspective if you think of it that way, opportunities or possibilities. And then it’s our job to see the learning in what children choose to do. Not the other way around. We’ve got to stop preventing conflict.

I was asked by a licensor years ago, Denita, how do you prevent conflict? And I looked at her and I’m like, why would I do that? How are children going to learn how to handle conflict if I’m going around stopping all the conflict before it happens? Those things in child that play that make adults uncomfortable, hold the greatest value for the players, conflict, power play, risk.

Teacher Tom: Well, how do you learn to be safe if you haven’t taken risk?

Denita: Right?

Teacher Tom: How do you learn to solve your problems if you haven’t had problems?

Denita: It makes no sense to me. Do you have to listen to it if you’ve got two children squabbling? Oh, I walk it out. I’ll walk away, especially if I trust those two children and I know there’s not going to be punches thrown. You know, you’ve got your children that, okay, they don’t quite understand yet that words are okay, but they, and they get physical with it. Sure. You position yourself closer, but you let the conflict happen. You let the moment happen.

With that, we have to stop stopping failing. Let failing happen because adults are too afraid of what might happen. What will the results be of that failing? Oh, goodness. That child is going to lose their patience and they’re going to lose their temper. Yeah, they might. But then through that, they’re going to learn how to handle failure. They’re going to learn, oh, that turned out okay. It’s all right.

Teacher Tom: Well, that’s what perseverance comes from, right? Is trying again and again and again. Yeah.

Denita: Yes. The other thing is, is we assume children want to be rescued. No, they don’t. I believe children have a right to struggle. I believe children have a right to work through that. And too often adults step in because we need to hurry up and get them back to table time inside, right? They don’t have time to work through those organic, natural, failing, and struggling. We need to stop controlling how many and how much.

Specifically, I’ll talk about Play Doh here with this one. All too commonly, an adult controls how much each child gets. An adult controls how many children will play with that Play Doh at a time. You’re taking away all the learning there. Anytime we set up a station and we say, there may be four of you here. There may be two of you at this one. We’re taking away what should belong to children. We’re taking away opportunities for them to develop true readiness, the empowering kind of readiness, the readiness for life.

But we’ve taken all those things away from children. And it’s all well-intentioned adults. It’s things adults just think that we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to set up stations for children. We’re supposed to demonstrate. And then the demonstration, too, while I’m on the topic of stations takes away the ownership of discovery from children. And owning discoveries builds curiosity and curious children are lifelong learners, right?

It all goes together. If you see a child accomplishing a task, but they’re not doing it the way you’re doing it, but they have not invited you in, they’re not frustrated and they’re making progress with the accomplishing of their task, let it be. A prime example of that is scissors. It is okay if a child does not use those scissors correctly. It is okay. I always ask myself, are they still going to be using the scissors like that when they’re 20? And the answer is no every single time. You’re never going to see a 20-year-old using two hands, you know what I mean? The two-handed scissor technique.

Teacher Tom: Right.

Denita: Yep. As long as they’re not running around the room going with the scissors. It is not hurting anything. So let them own their technique.

Teacher Tom: One of the things that happens in a play-based environment is we stop focusing on the deficits. You know, you were talking before about that parent who’s focusing on what their kid can’t do. We know what we focus on grows. And so play allows us to focus on our strengths.

Denita: Oh, I’m so glad you brought this up. So a gal I know very well. She’s in a public school early childhood program and she was just sharing with me her frustrations on how much they have to evaluate the children. And just recently, she said I she had to evaluate I believe a three-and-a-half-year-old on how many letters he knew and he was in tears. I’m just not good at this. I’m not good at it.

And that very same day, my little Eddie was using paper punchers, choosing to use the paper punchers. My maker space is just open-ended materials, children. There’s no adult led anything. And he’s punching out, he punches out a puppy and he goes, a puppy. I did it. And to nobody, to absolutely nobody, he says, I’m good at it.

And I’m like, what are we doing to children? No three-year-old should be in tears about something an adult is forcing them to know. And that child says, I’m just not good at like, it’s so horrible. When we follow a child’s lead through their play and they have these moments of I’m good at it.

Teacher Tom: Right.

Denita: And acknowledging that, it’s just going to build that foundation for them and build that confidence to try new things. And one of my favorite quotes is I want children to be brave enough to be bad at something new.

Teacher Tom: Nice. So Denita, this has been a great conversation. We could keep going, I know, because you and I share so much. But if people want to find out more about you and your work, how can they find you?

Denita: You can find me on Facebook, Listen to the children. So I’ve got my regular Facebook and then I’ve got a subscriber page. I do a lot of lives. I do a lot of before, like what my environment looks like before the children arrive, why I set it up that way. What needs its meeting? Why it’s not perfect. Why it’s a great big mess when children arrive because they own it. Just all kinds of little things like that. So that’s what’s on the subscriber page. And then I’ve got my regular page. So yeah, Listen to the Children is the very best place to find me.

Teacher Tom: So everybody, go on Facebook, go to Listen to the Children and learn a lot from Denita. So thank you, Denita. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Denita: Thank you, Tom.

Teacher Tom: Hope to see you soon.

What would you think if you saw a mother hovering over her two-month-old infant, drilling her with vowel sounds? Or how about a father coaching his five-month-old on the finer points of walking? At best, you’d think they were wasting their time. Two-month-olds can’t talk, and five-month-olds can’t walk, let alone be taught to talk or walk.

Talking and walking are things most children just learn by living. Now imagine that when these babies fail to acquire these capabilities that are clearly beyond their developmental grasp, these parents begin to fret that their child is falling behind. I’m putting that in air quotes because we’ve all heard it.

You would think these people were crazy. If a doctor told these parents their child was falling behind, we would say he was either incompetent or cruel. Sadly, there are actually people out there doing this kind of stuff. There are hucksters out there who assert, without evidence, that babies can be taught to read. And there are devices on the market that purport to help babies learn to walk.

The good news is that while there are some naive parents who fall for this gimmickry in a misguided attempt to somehow one up Mother Nature’s long, successful history of teaching, talking, and walking according to well established developmental timelines, most of us know better than to worry about these things and that virtually every child stresslessly learns these things without any special interventions.

My daughter spoke her first word at three months old, consistently saying, Papa, when I played and cared for her. She was putting together full sentences before six months. Now, this same advanced child didn’t crawl until her first birthday, and wasn’t walking until close to 20 months, a full lifetime behind some of her peers.

Today, however, as you might expect, she talks and walks like the rest of us. If she was ever behind, she caught up. If she was ever ahead, the others caught up with her. This unsavory practice of taking advantage of new parent insecurities in the name of profit is one that deserves to be called out wherever it rears its nasty head. And it’s borderline criminal when they play the falling behind card, which is why I’m here today.

I’ve had the opportunity the past decade or so to travel around the world and talk with teachers and parents. Every place I go, I find myself discussing this bizarre notion of school readiness, often translated in the U.S. as kindergarten readiness. It’s essentially code for reading. It seems that the powers that be in our respective nations have decided to sell parents on the snake oil that if children aren’t starting to read by five years old, they’re, again, in air quotes, falling behind.

They’re doing this despite the fact that every single legitimate study ever done on the subject recommends that formal literacy education, if we ever need it not begin until a child is seven or eight years old. They are telling parents and teachers that children are falling behind despite the fact that every single legitimate study ever done finds that there are no long-term advantages to being an early reader, just as there are no long-term advantages to being early talkers or walkers.

In fact, many studies have found that when formal literacy instruction begins too early, like, say, at five years old, children grow up to be less motivated readers and less capable of comprehending what they’ve read. That’s right. If anything, this school readiness fear mongering may well turn out to be outright malpractice.

But the worst thing, the unforgivable thing, is the cruelty of the assertion that five-year-olds are falling behind. It’s one thing when commercial interests attempt to move their crappy merchandise by playing on fears. But when schools are doing it, when teachers are doing it, it’s unconscionable. Now, I’m a staunch supporter of my fellow teachers, but I’m calling my colleagues out on this one.

Teachers should know better than to help these guys sell that stuff. It’s bad for kids, it’s bad for families, and it’s bad for society. We are the professionals. Teachers need to put our collective foot down, point to the research, rely on our own experience. And if we can’t refuse to subject young children to developmentally inappropriate, potentially harmful readiness garbage for fear of losing our jobs, the least we can do is refuse to take part in the crass abusiveness of falling behind. If we can’t do that. Maybe we don’t deserve to call ourselves professionals.

That’s it for this episode of Teacher Tom’s Podcast. Thanks for playing with me and a great thank you to Denita for this wonderful conversation. You’ll find out more about Denita and her work at and the Listen to the Children Facebook page. In the show notes, you’ll find out more about her and a link to the website.

I’m Tom Hobson, and you’ve listened to Teacher Tom’s Podcast, Taking Play Seriously. You can find out more about me at, that’s T-E-A-C-H-E-R-T-O-M-S-W-O-R-L-D dot C-O-M. Teacher Tom’s Podcast is a part of the Mirasee FM podcast network, which also includes such shows as Course Lab and Just Between Coaches.

Stay tuned for more fun episodes by following us on the Mirasee FM YouTube channel or your preferred podcast player. If you found today’s insights valuable, take a moment and leave us a starred review. It’ll help us reach more people like you. Again, thanks for playing with me and I’ll catch you in the next episode.