Childhood Is Another Country: Children Are Not Miniature Adults

Childhood is another country: they do things differently there.*

Great researchers and thinkers about education (think Froebel, Piaget, Vygotsky and so many others) have always known that children are not miniature adults.

Their work demonstrates basic truths about childhood development: While growth can be encouraged, supported and enriched, the essential developmental milestones and timetable for growth remain fairly constant.

What’s the price to be paid for the current fad for skipping those milestones and the pressure for children to perform and produce at ever younger ages?

The past few decades have seen an escalation of demands on the time and attention of childhood education and kindergarten in particular. Schools have been pressured to put aside exploratory and imaginative play to make time for increasing amounts of paper-and-pencil, on- task academic time.

A very useful piece of research emerged last week that clearly indicates that push and pressure are pointless at best and counterproductive at worst.

The data comes from the Gesell Institute for Human Development, named for pioneering founder of the Yale Child Study Center, Arnold Gesell: Kids Haven’t Changed; Kindergarten Has: New data support a return to “balance” in kindergarten.

A national study set out to determine how child development in 2010 relates to Gesell’s historic findings about the nature of child development. It used key assessment items identical to those Gesell created and allowed researchers to answer some key questions about children today:

Have kids gotten smarter? Can they learn things sooner? What effect has modern culture had on child development?

And the answers: No, No and None.

All this in the face of all that intensified pressure to perform and produce that has been foisted on the kindergarten curriculum by those with no knowledge of cognitive development.

The age at which children demonstrate certain milestones – such as being able to count four pennies or draw a circle – has stayed pretty constant over 85 years.

“People think children are smarter and they are able to do these things earlier than they used to be able to—and they can’t,” says Guddemi. While all children in the study were asked to complete 19 tasks, results echoed previous Gesell findings showing, for example, that a square is in the 4 1/2-year-old repertoire, but a child cannot draw a triangle until 5 1/2. These developmental milestones, Guddemi says, relate directly to what can be expected of children in kindergarten.

So what conclusions to draw from the research about how to design the kindergarten curriculum?

First, it seems we need to relax and stop with the anxiety. And then dig into what research also tells us about what actually does help with intellectual and social development in early childhood. (Hint: It’s not heightened academic pressure and testing).

Although the study shows children have the same developmental schedule they always have, Jerlean E. Daniel, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, says findings in recent years about the value of one-on-one conversations to early literacy, and music and patterns to math concepts, have added to the understanding of how children develop cognitively. Nonetheless, says Daniel, kindergarten has become more rigid and pressured. “Above all, young children need time—time to manipulate objects and ideas, time to make the information their own,” says Daniel. The Gesell study, she says, “is a resource to people who want to find greater balance in kindergarten.”

If we are not actually helping children progress with all this pressure, what are we accomplishing?  If there is less time for exploratory and imaginative play and the experience of discovering and manipulating the physical world, what are we stealing from cognitive potential?

The dress up corner and the sand table and the block area and the meeting place and the playground are not just for fun and a break from work: they are work. They are where the learning happens and where those key cognitive milestones are reached.

Children need to manipulate their world in concrete, exploratory and imaginative ways. And adults need to understand the difference between training and learning. (Hint: training is for parrots and poodles; learning is for people.)

Example: A child can be trained to memorize  2 + 3 = 5, but doesn’t realize that 3 + 2 = 5.

And – in confirmation that children are not just miniature adults – there’s a second piece of research from Jim Stone at the University of Sheffield, UK, as reported in the New Scientist: Children do not see objects in a fully grown-up way until about the age of 13.

When judging whether shaded images are convex or concave, adult brains assume that light comes from above unless there is reason to think otherwise. Young children have to learn this ability.

“Children really do see the world differently to adults, inasmuch as their perceptions seem to be more variable,” says Stone. “No wonder they can’t look at a cloud without seeing a dog or a bear.”

The best teachers and the greatest writers about childhood never forget this. Teachers informed by theoretical insight and good instincts know how to tap into children’s minds and draw them forward with what Jerome Bruner called “the canny art of intellectual temptation.”

Great writers – think Charles Dickens – capture that world and keep those perceptions ever vivid. Just think of the scene where Pip meets the convict in the graveyard and the portrayal of the terrifying guilt he later feels at his theft of the pie, the brandy and the file.

*” The Past is a foreign country: they do thing differently there?” The Go-between L P Hartley 1953

The photos in this post were taken at the 2010 Kindergarten Pattern Museum – learning at its best!. To find out more contact Robbie and Debby in the lower school.


  1. Robbie Puglisi:

    After teaching in early childhood classrooms for 35 years, I can offer first hand experience on developmentally appropriate practice for kindergarten children. This article rings true! One of the biggest gifts we can give to young children is allowing them to constrcut their own learning through hands on investigations and play.
    Robbie Puglisi
    Kindergarten teacher
    Poughkeepsie Day School

  2. Robbie – Your perspective carries such weight. Thank-you for sharing your thoughts. I agree with your thinking here 100%.

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