Guest blog post – Too Much Too Soon: School starting age: the evidence

We are delighted that Dr David Whitebread has written the following guest blog post on the topic of School Starting Age, which has been hotly debated recently in the media.

Too Much Too Soon: School starting age: the evidence David Whitebread

 Dr, David Whitebread, Faculty of Education.

In England children now start formal schooling, and the formal teaching of literacy and numeracy at the age of 4.  A recent letter signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, including myself, published in the Daily Telegraph  (11 Sept 2013) advocated an extension of informal, play-based pre-school provision and a delay to the start of formal ‘schooling’ in England from the current effective start at age 4 until the age of 7 (in line with a number of other European countries who currently have higher levels of academic achievement and child well-being).

This is a brief review of the relevant research evidence which overwhelmingly supports a later start to formal education. This evidence relates to the contribution of playful experiences to children’s development as learners, and the consequences of starting formal learning at the age of 4-5 years of age.

There are several strands of evidence which all point towards the importance of play in young children’s development, and the value of an extended period of playful learning before the start of formal schooling. These arise from anthropological, psychological, neuroscientific and educational studies.  Anthropological studies of children’s play in extant hunter-gatherer societies (Gray, 2009) and evolutionary psychology studies of play in the young of other mammalian species (Smith, 2006) have identified play as an adaptation which evolved in early human social groups that enabled humans to become powerful learners and problem-solvers. Neuroscientific studies (Pellis & Pellis, 2009), have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.

In my own area of experimental and developmental psychology, studies have also consistently demonstrated the superior learning and motivation arising from playful as opposed to instructional approaches to learning in children  (Sylva, Bruner & Genova, 1976; Pellegrino & Gustafson, 2005; Whitebread & Jameson, 2010). Pretence play supports children’s early development of symbolic representational skills, including those of literacy, more powerfully than direct instruction (Christie & Roskos, 2006). Physical, constructional and social play supports children in developing their skills of intellectual and emotional ‘self-regulation’ (Hyson, Copple & Jones, 2007; Ponitz, McClelland, Matthews and Morrison, 2009; Whitebread et al, 2005, 2007; Whitebread, 2010), skills which have been shown to be crucial in early learning and development (Wang, Haertel & Walberg, 1990; Hattie, 2009). Perhaps most worrying, Gray (2011) has documented the loss of play opportunities for children over the second half of the 20th century and demonstrated a clear link with increased indicators of stress and mental health problems.

Within educational research, a number of longitudinal studies have demonstrated superior academic, motivational and well-being outcomes for children children who had attended child-initiated, play-based pre-school programmes (Marcon; 2002; Sylva et al., 2004). The latter study of 3,000 children across England funded by the Department for Education themselves, showed that an extended period of high quality, play-based pre-school education was of particular advantage to children from disadvantaged households. .

Studies by Suggate and colleagues (Suggate, 2007; Suggate, Schaughency & Reese, 2012 ) have compared groups of children in New Zealand who started formal literacy lessons at ages 5 and 7. Their results show that the early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may be damaging. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later. In a separate study of reading achievement in 15 year olds across 55 countries, Suggate (2009) showed that there was no significant association between reading achievement and school entry age.

This body of evidence raises important and serious questions concerning the direction of travel of early childhood education policy currently in England. In the interests of children’s academic achievements and their emotional well-being, the UK government should take this evidence seriously.

For references please click on following link:


Christie, J.F. and Roskos, K.A. (2006) Standards, Science,  and the Role of Play in Early Literacy Education. In D.G. Singer, R.M. Golinkoff and K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds) Play = Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gray, P. (2009). Play as a foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal of Play, 1 (4), 476-522.

Gray, P. (2011). The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology. American Journal of Play, 3 (4), 443-463.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Hyson, M., Copple, C., & Jones, J. (2006). Early childhood development and education. In K. A. Renninger & I. Sigel (Eds.),Handbook of child psychology: Volume 4. Child psychology in practice (pp. 3–47). New York: Wiley.

Marcon, R.A (2002) Moving up the grades; relationship between pre-school model and later school success.  Early childhood Research and Practice, Vol. 4 (1) p. 517–530.

Pellegrini, A. D., & Gustafson, K. (2005). Boys’ and girls’ uses of objects for exploration, play and tools in early childhood. In A. D. Pellegrini, & P.K. Smith (Eds.), The nature of play: Great apes & humans.(pp. 113-135). New York: Guilford Press.

Pellis, S. & Pellis, V. (2009). The playful brain: venturing to the limits of neuroscience. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.

Ponitz, C. C., McClelland, M. M., Matthews, J. S., & Morrison, F. J. (2009). A structured observation of behavioral self-regulation and its contribution to kindergarten outcomes. Developmental Psychology, 45(3), 605.

Smith, P. K. (2006). Evolutionary Foundations and Functions of Play: An Overview. In Göncü, A., & Gaskins, S. (Eds.), Play & Development: Evolutionary, Sociocultural and Functional Perspectives. (pp. 21-49). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Suggate, S. P. (2007). Research into Early Reading Instruction and Luke Effects in the Development of Reading. Journal for Waldorf/R. Steiner Education Vol. 11.2, p.17.

Suggate, S. P. (2009). School entry age and reading achievement in the 2006 Pro-gramme for International Student Assessment (PISA). International Journal of Educational Research, 48, 151–161.

Suggate, S. P., Schaughency, E. A., & Reese, E. (2013). Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlier. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(1), 33-48.

Sylva,K., Bruner, J.S., & Genova, P. (1976). The role of play in the problem-solving of children 3-5 years old. In J. S. Bruner, A. Jolly, & K. Sylva (Eds.), Play: its role in development and evolution (pp. 55-67). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E. C., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. & Taggart, B. (2004) The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: Technical Paper 12 – The Final Report: Effective Pre-School Education. London: DfES / Institute of Education, University of London.

Wang, M.C., Haertel, G.D. & Walberg, H.J. (1990). What influences learning? A content analysis of review literature. Journal of Educational Research, 84, 30-43.

Whitebread, D., Anderson, H., Coltman, P., Page, C. , Pino Pasternak, D., & Mehta, S (2005). Developing Independent Learning in the Early Years. Education 3-13, 33, 40-50.

Whitebread, D., Bingham, S., Grau, V., Pino Pasternak, D., & Sangster, C. (2007). Development of Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning in Young Children: the role of collaborative and peer-assisted learning. Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, 3, 433-55.

Whitebread, D. (2010). Play, metacognition and self-regulation. In P. Broadhead, J. Howard and E. Wood (Eds.). Play and learning in the early years. London: Sage.

Whitebread, D. & Jameson, H. (2010). Play beyond the Foundation Stage: story-telling, creative writing and self-regulation in able 6-7 year olds. In J. Moyles (Ed.), The Excellence of Play, 3rd Ed. (pp. 95-107). Maidenhead: Open University Press.