Is four too young to start school?

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Sunday 4th September 2011

September is the month of new school uniform, sharpened pencils, and melancholy that the long summer holidays are over for another year. With my son starting year 13 tomorrow, his last year of school, I’m feeling extra nostalgic. It seems no time at all since his very first day, when he was a small boy with white-blond hair, a uniform that was far too big for him and a wide grin.

Actually, looking back, I’m sure he started school far too young. His birthday is in August and he was exactly four years and three weeks old when he pitched up in the reception class of a primary school in North Yorkshire, where we lived at the time.

He was utterly bewildered to be plunged into the classroom when all he wanted to do was play outside. At play school in the village hall he’d resolutely refuse to sit still and write or draw, always rushing to ride around on toy cars or play in the sandpit. It would have suited him much better if we’d lived somehwre like Sweden, Denmark or Finland (a superstar performer when it comes to education), where formal school is delayed till the age of seven. Up until then, young children focus on “play-based” learning and spend as much time as possible outdoors.

A primary school teacher friend of mine has been telling me for years that children start school too young here. She reckons school is especially difficult for boys between the ages of four and six. They hate sitting still for long stretches, loathe colouring in endless worksheets (girls love it!) and would far rather be charging around the playground. She always makes sure her lot get plenty of time outside. Even on rainy days she sticks on her coat at the small primary where she teaches and everyone goes outside for 20 minutes to run off steam.

At 17, my son’s had more than enough time to get used to the notion of school – but as a boy who prefers action, he’s still not ultra-keen. Even now he’d rather be whizzing down hills on his bike than sitting in a classroom learning about protons and neutrons and memorising French verbs.

PS: The picture above shows him with his big sister at the age of seven, on a hearty Lake District climb.

3 comments so far

  • I agree, it does seem too young. My youngest son was five in June and is about to start Year 1. He is far from ready for anything too structured which worries me. The only comfort I have is that I know that our village school recognises this and teachers often take their classes out to the playground or school wildlife area when the need arises. I’m sure he will make the transition eventually as his two brothers did and learn to use his playground time to its full potential.

  • Thanks for commenting, Claire. It’s good to hear that the school recognises how important being able to run around in the fresh air is. I think things have improved over the last ten years, in fact.

  • Hmmmmmm…. I started school when I was 4, although it was an old fashioned dame-school run by two redoubtable elderly ladies. We did play outside a lot, I remember.
    I do remember reading a lot there. Unfortunately, the ladies lost the lease and I had to change schools. It all seemed OK – and I certainly don’t feel I lost out by starting so young. There were no playgroups, etc then.
    Perhaps it really does depend on the child concerned.
    Just my 2p.


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