Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an expert on early childhood education, has been an outspoken opponent of the trend to push academics into kindergarten, and even preschool.

In this post, she explains how play has been banished from many kindergartens by the misguided belief that starting academics early will close the achievement gap. It doesn’t help kids of any origin. The children hurt most by this pressure are children of color.

She writes:

Soon many of our nation’s young children will be starting school for the first time. What they will likely find is something dramatically different from what their parents experienced at their age. Kindergartens and pre-K classrooms have changed. There is less play, less art and music, less child choice, more teacher-led instruction, worksheets, and testing than a generation ago. Studies tell us that these changes, although pervasive, are most evident in schools serving high percentages of low-income children of color.

The pressure to teach academic skills in pre-K and kindergarten has been increasing since the passage of the No Child Left Behind act 15 years ago. Today, many young children are required to sit in chairs, sometimes for long periods of time, as a teacher instructs them. This goes against their natural impulse to learn actively through play where they are fully engaged–body, mind, and spirit.

Play is an engine driving children to build ideas, learn skills and develop capacities they need in life. Kids all over the world play and no one has to teach them how. In play children develop problem solving skills, social and emotional awareness, self-regulation, imagination and inner resilience. When kids play with blocks, for example, they build concepts in math and science that provide a solid foundation for later academic learning. No two children play alike; they develop at different rates and their different cultures and life experiences shape their play. But all children learn through play.

Many urban, low-income children have limited play opportunities outside of school, which makes in-school playtime even more vital for them. But what studies now show is that the children who need play the most in the early years of school get the least. Children in more affluent communities have more classroom play time. They have smaller class sizes and more experienced teachers who know how to provide for play-based learning. Children in low income, under-resourced communities have larger class sizes, less well-trained teachers, heavier doses of teacher-led drills and tests, and less play.

We’ve seen a worrisome trend in recent years showing high rates of suspension from the nation’s public preschools. The latest report from the Office for Civil Rights reveals that these suspensions are disproportionately of low-income black boys. (This pattern continues for children in grades K-12.) Something is very wrong when thousands of preschoolers are suspended from school each year. While multiple causes for suspensions exist, one major cause for this age group is play deprivation. Preschool and kindergarten suspensions occur primarily in schools serving low-income, black and brown children and these are the schools with an excess of drill-based instruction and little or no play.

There are many children who simply cannot adapt to the unnatural demands of early academic instruction. They can’t suppress their inborn need to move and create using their bodies and senses. They act out; they get suspended from school, now even from preschool.

Depriving low-income children and children of color of play will not make them better learners. In fact, it may turn them off school entirely. Let children be children. Let them grow up healthy, curious, imaginative, and free to experiment and dream. There is plenty of time to learn academics.