In America, the Head Start Program, launched in the 1960s for low-income children, had an unintended consequence. Although it was very effective, the title gave parents the impression that education was a race, and that the earlier you start, the earlier and better you finish. Middle-income parents wanted their preschoolers to have a head start as well. This gave added emphasis to the importance of early childhood education as the answer to improving the educational system.
As a consequence, kindergarten, once a half-day affair required by only 40 percent of US states, has become largely a full-day affair required nationwide. Academics, including math and reading curricula, testing and grades, are now the norm in many schools. Programs for younger children have expanded as well. Today, some 80 percent of children under the age of six spend part or full time in non-parental child care settings. Having your child cared for outside of the home, once looked down upon as an abrogation of a mother’s maternal instinct, is now a socially accepted practice. Indeed, those parents who choose not to put their children in out-of-home settings are the ones perceived as insufficiently concerned with their child’s welfare.
With the rapid expansion and acceptance of early childhood programs, the basic principle of early childhood education, supported by an overwhelming amount of contemporary research and classroom experience, is dismissed as irrelevant. Instead, we have had a politically and commercially driven effort to make early childhood education “the new first grade.” A play-based curriculum is best suited to meet the emerging needs, abilities, and interests of young children.