The ‘should kids be starting school aged four?’ debate was raised once again this week with the publication of new research, carried out by the University of Loughborough, that claims that children are ‘not physically ready’ to start school. Citing the fact that children’s mobility levels are at an all-time low – overuse of iPads, not enough time climbing trees – researchers say that it is beginning to have a direct impact in the classroom: from affecting a child’s ability to sit still (an essential at school) to the development of their fine motor skills (needed for things like holding pencils and putting shoes on), to problems with balance and coordination.

Children’s mobility levels are at an all-time low – overuse of iPads, not enough time climbing trees – and researchers say that it is beginning to have a direct impact in the classroom

Furthermore, tests carried out on a range of kids showed that 30% per cent of them are starting school with symptoms associated with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD, all of which can, in theory, be improved with the correct levels of physical activity. Given this new information, and the numerous other issues routinely debated around the topic of starting school, we spoke to an education consultant, a teacher, an education specialist and a mother, to find out what they think about these latest findings, and whether, in their opinion, kids should be starting school aged four…

Dr. Rebecca Duncombe, teaching fellow in pedagogy at Loughborough University
My point of view would be that four years old is fine to start school if we equip young children with the skills they need, and if we meet their needs in our school system. Our research found that the kids we assessed had not developed their physical skills (fine and gross motor skills) to an extent where they could really succeed in the classroom, i.e. they were not ‘school ready’, and a child with poor physical development will often struggle to sit still, concentrate, follow instructions, hold a pencil and son on.

If we are asking kids to start school when they’re not ready then I think the focus needs to be on what we can do, or what we can change, before they start school, and look at how we structure lessons once they have started school, in order to to meet their needs. Making them sit still at a desk is generally not the answer as they need to move, a lot.

In terms of being physically ready to start school, children need to have had lots of active play including lots of outdoor play where they are allowed to run, jump, climb and spin. They need to have had lots of opportunities to be active (the British Heart Foundation guidelines are 180 minutes a day for this age group). As babies they should have had a lot of tummy time and not been strapped into car seats, baby bouncers, prams, and so on, for hours on end. Screen time should also have been limited as much as is possible, especially in babies and toddlers.

Parents can encourage healthy physical development by playing outside with their children, by helping them to learn the basics of throwing and catching, and by giving them opportunities to develop their fine motor skills by encouraging the to do things like play with play-doh and thread beads.

Liat Hughes Joshi, writer, journalist and author of New Old-fashioned Parenting and How to Unplug your Child
In an ideal world, I’d like to see parents and schools deciding together whether a particular child is ready to start school at age four, or if they should wait until later, but the reality is that this isn’t actually that practical. In fact in many primary schools there has even been a move away from staggered starts. On the whole I do think kids can, and should, go to school at four years old because we’re not talking about traditional classrooms with pupils sitting in rows of desks at this age – a modern Reception class is very much about play-based learning. It’s really not so different to pre-school.

I think, importantly, that kids of this age need to learn about sharing, taking turns and listening, and for those who perhaps aren’t getting that experience at home, for whatever reason, that can be an especially valuable part of the school experience. Of course there are a small number who find Reception overwhelming, but the vast majority will surely benefit and thrive. Yes we can look at say Scandinavia, where children start school aged seven and do just as well, or indeed better in some cases, but their education system is set up differently to ours so I think it’s really hard to compare. 

Of course some children are just naturally more confident and ‘ready’ than others. If your son or daughter isn’t ‘ready’ then lots of reassurance, play dates with other children starting in the same class, or even time at a nursery to get used to an environment with lots going on, can really help them. It’s all about trying to ensure you encourage them to be independent, as far as is comfortable for them.

Laura Alvarado, education consultant and founder of Tomato Tutors
In short, no, I do not think kids should be starting school aged four. What I’m seeing in my work as a tutor and educational consultant is that school, as we know it, is morphing into a place of government targets, staffed by overworked teachers, with too much reliance on intellectual achievement. It is causing parents to be unnecessarily anxious, which inevitably does filter down to the child. A four-year-old is still developing, emotionally and physically, and in my mind school is not always the best place to support that growth.

I think that going to school at this age can both help and hinder them. I am not anti-schools, as such, and with my work at Tomato Tutors we aim to help parents and students restore balance. A four-year-old does need routine, stimulus, and a chance to socialise, which many schools, if not all, provide. However, what helps children is if they are facilitated to explore their imagination in a gentle way, as well providing opportunities for risky play. Children learn from adults and each other through imitation rather than conceptualisation – they want to join in making bread, sweeping leaves and playing games. If we as adults demonstrate practical real life skills then we will be supporting their motor skills and much more. I feel it is really important for parents to understand the value in involving children in daily tasks and chores.

To prepare a four-year-old who may not be ‘school ready’ is an interesting concept. I don’t know if you can rush their development. What you can do is look at the family routine and make sure that there is a balance between time in nature, around animals, free play time, activity time, cooking, gardening, cleaning, being with other children, making up stories, reading limericks and humorous poetry.  Hands-on activities in a child’s early years is enormously helpful later on when they need to learn to handle more abstract concepts in their learning. I am a mum of a three-year-old and I know first hand how easy it to let them have the iPad to diffuse a tantrum, or get a moment’s peace, but I do believe it has to be limited otherwise we run the risk of shortchanging our children.

Rebecca Ley, freelance writer, journalist and mother-of-three
I don’t necessarily think it’s a disaster for children to go to school aged four. Most parents need, and / or want, to work these days, so you are probably going to be putting your child in a group childcare setting well before their fourth birthday anyway. A good Reception class shouldn’t be that different from a good nursery – nurturing, warm, with plenty of opportunity for free play, as well as pockets of more formal learning if a child shows readiness. In that environment a child can thrive.

This research latest research shows that many children aren’t getting enough opportunities for this kind of thing – imaginative, active, outdoor play – before they start school, and since that’s the depressing reality, schools can potentially have a positive impact by offering pupils plenty of time and freedom to charge around outside making stuff up. 

As a mother of three kids aged five, three and six months, I think the point to remember is that it’s not a race to read or do multiplication – doing something first, doesn’t ultimately mean you’ll do it better. Those skills can come later once a child can navigate their body freely and think for themselves. So if you’re worried that your child might not be ‘school ready’, it’s probably best to focus on developing them as a person – reading and talking to them lots, going to the park and cooking with them, rather than trying to teach them phonics.

What do you think? Should kids be starting school aged four? Join in the debate over on our Facebook page.

Liat Hughes Joshi is author of New Old-fashioned Parenting and How to Unplug your Child

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