Advocacy, Pedagogy

5 Ways to Fight the Downward Push of Academics

I have officially had enough. The downward push of academics into early education is making me feel frustrated. Frustrated that despite that overwhelming research both here and internationally; a solid national Early Years Learning Framework that supports play based programs and professional development opportunities that encourage educators to implement and advocate for play based learning, we continue to see examples of structured academics and ridiculously high expectations in the early years. 

I appreciate that there are many amazing services and educators out there who are advocates for learning through play, but I am frustrated with those that are choosing to disregard a plethora of research that identifies that structured academics in the early years is not only unnecessary but can also be damaging. I am frustrated with those who are not prepared to stand up for the rights of children to engage in unstructured, free play. I am frustrated with those who are using academics as a marketing ploy, an attempt to lure parents in, rather than sharing research about play based learning and referring to the National Quality Framework. 

Just yesterday I was given a flyer for a brand new service opening up near me. The educator introduced herself and I asked about how many children would be in the service. She quickly answered that there would be 102 and that they would be split into 5 rooms, before redirecting me to the “innovative” reading program where children receive free books, explaining that even my young baby would receive books as part of the program. While receiving books is lovely I was actually gutted to read the promotional flyer which boasted “Guarantee 9 out of 10 children will read at level one or above by the time they start school!” 

Where do I start with everything wrong with that statement? The unnecessary pressure that this puts on the children and the educators is appalling. What happens if in a group of 20 children only five are reading at that level (which to me would be impressive. Impressive and unnecessary!)? Is all other play cancelled in favour of the reading program to ensure that children actually meet the guarantee? If so much time is spent learning to read in these early years, what will these children be doing in their Kindergarten year while other children are learning to read?

In another sad turn I was speaking with a fellow educator who is starting her daughter at Kindergarten at the local public school next year. They attended an orientation session last week and the educator found herself feeling very concerned for her child. The kindergarten teachers said that they expected the children to know several sight words before even beginning school and instructed the parents to go home and use sight word flash cards with their children!  

I just have to wonder – WHY? 
“There are no specific skills that a child needs to have before starting Kindergarten – they are not expected to know how to read or write. The main thing is that both you and your child feel confident about starting school.”
This statement comes directly from the NSW Department of Educations parent brochure Time to Start School. The brochure also strongly advocates for the importance of play in the early years for developing skills as well as crucial social and emotional development. 

So, if the Department of Education and the National Quality Framework advocate for the same thing – why is this downward push still happening? And more importantly how do we stop it?!  It really is up to us as educators and parents to put a stop to it. We all want children to have the best start to life, but by pushing academics into the early years we could in fact be doing the opposite. We could be creating a generation of stressed, over structured, over stimulated children. We need to give childhood back to children.


  1. Get educated. Knowledge is power – read anything and everything that you can get your hands on to support play based learning in the early years​
  2. ​Share what you learn. Share articles, books and information with your colleagues
  3. ​Speak honestly with families. Have a strong philosophy grounded in play based learning, have policies that support this and encourage discussion with families and opportunities for them to spend time in your service seeing the positive impact of play based learning
  4. ​Be heard in the community. Write a blog, send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, invite the community into your play based services. Do whatever it takes to advocate for children’s rights!
  5. ​Create meaningful connections with your local schools. Ensure that families are getting consistent information and speak up to the teachers, principal or department if you have concerns.
​By Nicole Halton


No Comments

  • Toni


    Nicole, I couldn’t agree with you more ….. I get a sick feeling in my stomach every time some academic touts another theory requiring children to perform and/or meet some theoretical standard, particularly when the evidence is so overwhelming that the best outcomes for children and learning, especially long term learning and childhood mental health comes from a stress free childhood, a play based curriculum in the early years and late (7yrs old) exposure to formal academia.
    I think back to my childhood where you had to be turning 6 in year 1, there was no kindy, no prep but a neighbourhood of kids playing from dawn to dusk…. and I consider the new thinking, advancements and breakthroughs that have been made by this generation and have to wonder …. was that not enough?
    I have been lucky enough to work in a Family Day Care setting (max 4 toddlers to 1 Educator) but fear that this Early Childhood Care option will not be available to families in the future as the federal government plays with the financial & regulatory levers to move all funded positions into (predominately corporate operated) day care centres.
    There are a lot of people out there with designs for young children and it behoves parents to look closely at those agendas before participating. It IS possible to push back…. I’ve done it…. but it’s tough battle and you (the parent) will have to drive the process with kinders and schools.

    October 19, 2015 at 6:31 pm
  • Nicole (Inspired EC)


    Thank you so much for commenting Toni, it is great to hear someone else who feels so passionately about this. Your comments made me think of Peter Gray – hearing him talk about the problems with current education systems and just how amazing it was for children to just learn through BEING, really inspired me. Thanks again 😊

    October 19, 2015 at 7:21 pm
  • John Davidson


    As Shakespeare said …”something rotten in the state of Denmark.” I applaud what you say Nicole. So much is based on fear and then doubt leads to ignorance. None of this serves our children.
    We need to also look very carefully at two things … what we are afraid of, and what things are called.
    All of us as teachers and as parents want the best for our children. This opens the possibility of anxiety and then fear. like you say the more we can educate ourselves the stronger we can be to confront the things that make us vulnerable.
    And … what things are called. Who on earth decided that we should change the name of children’s garden (Kindergarten) to ‘early learning centres’? Seriously. Can we start a renaming campaign and seize these things back for our children and a healthy future.

    October 19, 2015 at 8:58 pm
    • Nicole (Inspired EC)


      Ahhh John – a renaming campaign sounds great! We need to recapture the magic of childhood. What you say is so true – the language that we use is so powerful. Perhaps in an attempt to professionalise and give “value” to the early years, we have in fact lost the innocence and freedom?

      October 19, 2015 at 9:06 pm
    • Angie


      what a misquote — considering all the nature play in Denmark 😉
      There is so much research/evidence surrounding early years and the holistic development benefits of play… I love how you advise others to arm themselves with learning theories and evidence to support learning through play and to share that with parents. It’s so hard to fight against the current of fear-driven culture, but we can! Networking certainly helps. And parent/toddler play days!

      October 24, 2015 at 6:23 pm
      • Nicole (Inspired EC)


        Thanks Angie – we definitely should feel empowered by the research that’s out there and use it to advocate 🙂

        October 26, 2015 at 2:03 pm
    • Sonya


      John, I don’t know about where you are from but ELC and kindergarten and pre-primary are all different things and I know the order of them varies from State to State. I am by no means arguing with your point or those in this article. I am just trying to clarify that we might not all be talking about the same age groups using our definitions.

      October 27, 2015 at 3:10 pm
  • Joanne


    I love this! I couldnt agree more! I only said the other day to my director that I make a point of not even going near teaching reading or even writing. Concepts that are beyond 4/5 yr olds. Don’t get me wrong, I advocate high expectations for my preschoolers, but it’s age appropriate.
    My daughter started prep this year. She turned 5 in January. She is behind with reading and writing. I feel immense pressure from family members with chn the same age and the community that she must have a learning difficulty. I try my hardest not to buy into it. I know she’ll get it when she’s ready to.
    The community in my service is slowly changing. It’s happening from constant sharing of information with our families.
    If we be consistent and confident, we can change those perceptions, even it it takes awhile 😀

    October 19, 2015 at 9:00 pm
    • Nicole (Inspired EC)


      So true Joanne! High expectations are one thing (and actually a key part of the EYLF) but I think realistic, high expectations are important! My own son is off to school in January and thankfully we have found a school that said they would actually prefer that we don’t attempt to teach him to read!
      Good on you for being a passionate advocate

      October 19, 2015 at 9:09 pm
      • Fiona


        I too love your article. Regarding expectations expressed by Joanne and yourself: As a preschool teacher and mother some 30 years ago I believed in play based learning. I deliberately did not teacher my daughter to read but instead gave a very wide range of play based experiences. When we moved to NSW the school asked what education she had experienced. They put her into Yr 1. The first night she came home with spelling homework! I was up to the school and had her changed back to Kindergarten where she would be the oldest being a May birthday.
        And there she blossomed. She went on to do very well at school and further study. Now a doctor she is studying to be a surgeon.
        I often tell this story to remind parents not to push their child but enjoy the magic of childhood and living in the moment. Provide play based experiences in nature for this enhances their interest in why and how things work.

        October 19, 2015 at 10:06 pm
      • Dorisanne Booth


        I agree also, as I look at centres I notice young children being made to come to group time for a story, they are told to sit, not to talk, not to move!! so they become restless and then in trouble . I realise a lot of children loves stories specially interactive ones where they are part of the whole process and they have chosen what to read, however we are not catering for every child needs like this. I would let them wander off and play if that’s what they needed to do, pull the cars out or buttons, shells. One day one little person was with the planks of wood building a big oblong shape near the story and I observed him being ask to come back to the story, he didn’t and the Educator was getting quiet crabby with him, he finished his creation and tapped her on the arm, she snapped at him which broke my heart, he had created a castle for the children to sit in to listen to the story it was about a princess and a friendly dragon! look what this little person was creating and one Educator squashed it all !!He was interested in the story he new it very well what a lovely outcome this could of been. I was guttered.
        Educators need to get it right it should be child driven and all about play, I found it worked beautifully. I had very happy children at my play centre and set Families straight as they walked the door, we always had exceptional relationships with families. Play has to be sold to be the product that is best for children to be happy, engaged and be healthy, its so easy.

        October 20, 2015 at 9:01 am
    • Lisa


      As a homeschooling mum these are issues we have been trying to bring to the attention of parents, teachers and schools but because we are not seen as educators we have been largely ignored. I’m so glad many educators are now also on board with this concept

      October 20, 2015 at 12:12 am
    • Jordan


      I could not disagree more with the statement that the concept of reading is beyond 4/5 year olds. It might be beyond SOME, but not all. My four year old reads. My two year old is beginning to show interest but not as much as her sister did. That is fine with me. She has never been as interested in books as her older sister has. She would rather build things or do active games. Just like my youngest is already bilingual while my oldest does not communicate in my native tongue at all. They are unique.
      In my family growing up, every child read before kindergarten- Not because my parents used flashcards or whatever, but because my parents were both avid readers who shared their love of books with their children, which is what I have tried to do with my children.
      I have no issue with the stance against early “school”. In fact, I completely agree with it. However, it saddens me to think that this often translates to parents never asking their children to sit for quiet time or reading a book with their children. Simply snuggling and sharing a book is NOT at all the same thing as structured academics for preschoolers, and should not be confused as such. If a child shows interest in reading and begins to ask questions, what is wrong in answering them?
      My fondest memories as a child were of my mom teaching me to read. Please remember that education is not a one size fits all solution and children are unique individuals with their own needs and personalities. What is “age appropriate” for one may not be for another.

      October 23, 2015 at 6:22 am
      • Nicole (Inspired EC)


        Thanks for your input Jordan! I agree with you – some children are ready to read and in fact are bursting to read… I was one of those children! I have no issue with a child who is developmentally ready and shows a keen interest in reading, doing so in the years before school. All children are indeed different. My 5year old son for example counts to over 100, can tell the time and has a pretty strong fascination with numbers and number patterns. I don’t stop him from learning those things, but I would never guarantee that 9 out of 10 children his age would be able to do those things. And that is what I take issue with, the guarantee and the unnecessary pressure.
        I couldn’t agree more that books are an important part of early childhood for so many reasons. Fostering a love of books and a love of learning is our role – anything else gained is a bonus, it shouldn’t be expected or guaranteed. But, like anything I think our role in EC settings is to provide resources and opportunities, not to necessarily enforce that all children sit for story time together.
        Thanks again for commenting, it is great to get many viewpoints!

        October 23, 2015 at 8:32 am
  • Gavin


    I was also out on this weekend and also had a look at one of those flyers and I won’t write the words I thought of it here. I saw it as one of those ways adults try and group children…..they will all conform to this way and do it our way.
    I honestly did not see any respect of who the children were in this flyer just the fact that reading would obviously be the main focus on their learning. But to guarantee it like that says to me that it would be force fed to them. Reading is an important life skill but at the ages they were talking about should be more concerned with the children feeling confident and happy in their environment so they will challenge themselves to make new discoveries each day and strive to learn more of these discoveries in a more natural and fluid way.
    I hope I made sense there as I’m not the most articulate person in the world.

    October 19, 2015 at 10:14 pm
  • Louise


    None of my children really was able to read until their second year of school, although we read multiple books daily. (I was an honours graduate of English lit). They and I loved reading books and telling stories, and they all developed wonderful vocabularies, a real aptitude for using language well and are clear thinkers. Thank goodness for a little country school and a relaxed attitude to learning. That was 18 plus years ago, no graphs of progress on the staff room wall to track each class, the high performers, the low performers and where the bulk are sitting. No data, just clear structured instruction laced liberally with enjoyment and meaning. We knew about pressure in the sixties and seventies, and yet teachers seem to have forgotten it. Why don’t primary school teachers stand up, if it’s only early childhood teachers who speak up, sadly the message will not be heard.

    October 19, 2015 at 10:26 pm
  • Margaret


    Hi Nicole
    I love the thread of the conversation.It makes me think of the work of Guy Claxton on Learning-Oriented Habits of Mind. He talks of his Magnificent 8 dispositions and values “learnacy” over literacy and numeracy”. It is important for us to be able to counter the push down curriculum and the commercializing of EC curriculum to the detriment of children. This development of “learnacy” is very possible in nature play, and so much more.

    October 20, 2015 at 6:14 am
    • Heather


      Hi Margaret,
      I had never heard of Guy Claxton, so I just spent a bit of time researching his Magnificient Eight. Wow! Thank you for a timely, serendipitous push in this direction, it is exactly what we have been looking for to bring all sorts of reflections together at our preschool at the moment.
      Our team is awesome and I love the work we do but I will admit that sometimes we look up to find that we have let ourselves get pushed along somehow and end up over the line we have drawn without even realising it. Our staff meeting this week was all about exactly that and how we needed to realign ourselves with what we know to be right and dig our position in a little deeper! I think the Magnificent Eight might just help us withstand the constant onslaught.
      Thanks again
      Heather 😀

      October 24, 2015 at 8:45 am
  • Amanda Holt


    Hi Nicole,
    Thankyou for such an honest testimony of where the world of early childhood has come to. I too despair of the opportunities for young children to just be children who are able to explore & make up their own minds.
    Having 4 very different children, neither being ‘taught’ to read or what to think, they are amazing. Our youngest son never attended an art activity & did his first painting at 6, he is now an amazing graphic, intricate artist. Having Aspergers he is a square peg in a round loving world! I shudder to think that he would have been made to feel too different when he was 3.
    I loathe the Best Start testing & loathe even more the companies that spruik programs o families for their child to be better than the rest!
    Sign me up for sharing the real truth – ‘learnacy’!

    October 20, 2015 at 8:40 am
  • Nichole Jenkins


    Thankyou, I needed to read that today! I am in the process of opening a much needed LDC for our small community. I currently run a mobile service of which we have a strong and powerful play based program which is popular and well loved by the communities we visit.
    As I talk about the older room at our LDC service with families the focus on academics is strong, even though they know and love our mobile play based program.
    I am finding I have to stop myself from becoming caught up in the “academic web”.
    I too get very concerned about the pressure being placed on families and children, so much enjoyment is being lost.
    Thankyou Nic for giving me inspiration to keep learning and reading and to be a strong advocate within our community for what is right for our children and families.

    October 20, 2015 at 10:11 am
  • Ginny Holloway


    Hello Everyone,
    I teach early childhood development at a community college here in Northern Virginia, USA. We have the same problems here too. I think the real fear parents have is that their children will not be ready to make lots of money in the working world. Status, power, money, prestige – these are goals for too many people today.
    I am a grandmother of four wonderful children, ranging in age from 17 months to 16 years old. They have all been given lovely, experience-rich, love-filled childhoods, just as I gave their parents. If a child is loved, cherished, given plenty of time to explore and create, and is NOT judged or criticized for it, the child will bloom and grow.
    Learning HOW to learn, and learning for the joy of learning – these are what I wish for all young children. If one enjoys learning, the content knowledge will come so much more easily.

    October 20, 2015 at 1:04 pm
  • Mimi


    Hi, I feel that this is an outcome based framework not a push down from academics. Academic use a critical lens to question subjective power plays (well one strategy). The over emphasis on outcome based EC over democratic, play-based and child right’s approaches lies within a neoliberalism mentality that dominates our world today. Today EC policy is driven my economy over children’s well-being. Within a neoliberal government regime productivity is more important, hence, the over emphasis on for-profit ECEC settings were parents are seen as consumers and childcare is a commodity rationalised through getting parents back to work. As ECEC is a place where dispositions for future citizens are developed their has been a dash of private outcome based ‘quick fix’ programs made by companies (usually based on developmental philosophy and research approaches) opposed to sociocultural or sociology of the child approaches) that claim to scaffold outcomes to argument parent choices, in what they perceive is quality EC programs.

    October 20, 2015 at 11:16 pm
  • Dawn


    I agree 110% with the focus of this post.
    I will share once the bullet points are re-numbered at the end. The title of the article is 5 points, yet it ends with #4. I’m sure this was a quick typo, but details matter when talking to educators and parents. We must be hyper-vigilant in editing when presenting a professional argument.

    October 20, 2015 at 11:23 pm
  • BarbaraLee


    I homeschooled my children for 16 yrs for one of these reasons. I also believe children shouldn’t start Kindergarden until their 7.

    October 20, 2015 at 11:37 pm
    • Nicole (Inspired EC)


      And that there is another whole conversation isn’t it Barbaralee? I was just talking to some family about this on the weekend and really think it is something we should adopt here in Australia, yet in order to do that we either need to have ways of making it more affordable for parents to remain at home with their children or ensure that all children have access to affordable, high quality early years programs. I think homeschooling is brilliant and there seems to be quite a large movement of families taking this road at the moment, which in itself shows the discontent with schooling in Australia. Thanks for your comment

      October 21, 2015 at 7:11 am
  • Barb


    As someone who has taught in this field for over 25 years, and now teach at the college level, I totally agree with you. It’s not only the programs who need to be educated on what is right, it’s the parents who come in asking for homework for their 3 year old. I would like to use your article for the class on learning through play I am currently teaching if that’s ok?

    October 21, 2015 at 1:11 am
  • Madie


    I agree with you all. I know it’s more about control , money, and power. I’m with an association that’s trying to help providers make a change.
    WE have to stick together. Write our senators over and over again. Give a cause/affect but don’t use words such as, like. The words should be, we want”.
    Hold on, pray for a great change and be active
    Love all my provider sisters all over..

    October 21, 2015 at 11:22 pm
  • Gwen


    I applaud all your comments. I have taught in Kindergarten for 35 years and yes the push down is definitely growing. I teach in W.A. where Kindergartens are part of the school system. National testing seems to have a lot to do with it. The attitude to “get them early” is a common one. People who are not early childhood trained are unfortunately calling the shots. Even the biggest education system in our state does not appear to have a strong enough voice in early childhood to put a halt to it. I feel so sad for the opportunities lost when 4 and 5 year old children spend their time at Kindergarten constantly being assessed on their knowledge of the alphabet, their writing ability, their numeracy skills.
    Early childhood teachers know how young children learn, when they are ready to learn and what is appropriate to teach young children. How about leaving early childhood education to the experts! It also AMAZES me why the policy makers in Government take little if any notice of the most successful education systems in the world, namely Finland.

    October 24, 2015 at 3:48 pm
    • Deb Michel


      The five points above are nice but they won’t really change much in public education. That may sound negative, but there needs to be more, a #6. As a Kindergarten teacher for 30 years the only way to change this is to get the politicians to change their education policies. This would be at the federal, state, and local level. Teachers have lost their voice in the discussion that they know the most about. There is little respect for a teacher’s knowledge about this. Teachers need to get more involved in politics. At the simplest level vote for candidates that are invested in changing education for the better. Next talk to the politicians about the importance of appropriate early childhood education. This test crazy system is only going to get worse. I see it everyday and it breaks my heart.

      October 25, 2015 at 12:08 am
  • Annette


    As a retired primary educator I am heartened to read the passion for play based learning. I have been concerned for many years as the reduction in valuing play diminishes with the push for academics increases. As parents and early childhood educators developing a real love of learning, reading through sharing and exploring learning experiences is vital. This will bring to school the desire to engage in the more formal aspects of education. My biggest fear is that children are being turned off learning with the increased formalisation in formative years and the pressure of marketing and accountability through test scores

    October 25, 2015 at 8:09 am
  • Rachel Wright


    One of my “soapbox” issues! I worked in early childhood education for many years, and now teach at the elementary level. It kills me that Kindergarten is now what 1st grade was a few years ago, and Preschool has become Kindergarten! I see so many interventions done in the school systems now because kids are “behind” and “not learning on grade-level.” Could it be that we are expecting too much from them, that we are teaching them concepts that they are not ready for?
    My own two daughters have always been in gifted and talented programs. I know that some children can do more than others. But I see children struggling everyday to try to meet expectations that they just can’t reach. It is time to not expect so much from them!
    Ok, getting off my soapbox! 🙂

    October 25, 2015 at 12:54 pm
  • jode@mummymusingsandmayhem


    I really love this post Nicole and will share it widely on my social media channels. I still often hear people dismissing the ‘notion’ of play based learning and it always makes me think they have something to fear from this approach..but why? I have been sharing play based learning activities and ideas for years on my blog and I know from the comments I receive that many people want to wholeheartedly embrace this learning perspective but feel they won’t be ‘preparing their child for school’ without the associated flashcards and formal learning tools. It makes me so sad that so many parents are feeling pressure to ensure somehow that their child is ‘ready’ for school even if this means they are missing out on the glorious years of play and fun….and yes learning.
    My twin 5 year olds have a July Birthday and I made the decision to give them another year of ‘play’ and ‘childhood’ rather than send them to school this year. i am so very glad I stuck to my guns even though I was questioned about my ‘intentions’ widely. They have learnt so much this year and blossomed as unique individuals and I feel they are much better prepared for what lies ahead of them next year. I’m not ashamed to say I fear them starting school, they are used to exploring outside all day and learning in ways that meet their sensory and social needs. I am bracing for a big shift next year, they will no doubt handle it better than me but gosh I am sad to see them leaving their play based learning behind…I fear for what will be expected of them.
    Thank you for writing this…good to not feel alone in these thoughts!

    October 25, 2015 at 5:13 pm
  • Cindy W.


    This is a beautiful post you have written. I co-incidentally just wrote a post last night on my website – – that addresses this very topic. I gave parents an overview of all the learning that took place recently when we did an apple orchard theme. What often looks like “just play” to parents also has an incredible amount of learning going on. One of my preschool parents directed me to your blog which addresses the same thoughts. Great minds think alike. 🙂

    October 26, 2015 at 3:32 am