Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday.

All work and no play?

Parents are going to extreme lengths to give their children a head start before they hit the school system. In an education special over the next three weeks, the Herald on Sunday will examine the qualifications framework and the three Rs. Why do Kiwi kids do better in some subjects than others? This week, we talk to parents spending big money to send their 3 and 4-year-olds to transition classes.

Mackenzie Hay's mother Nina  pays $200-a-week for him to attend preschool classes aimed at giving children a head start. Photo / Michael Craig
Mackenzie Hay's mother Nina pays $200-a-week for him to attend preschool classes aimed at giving children a head start. Photo / Michael Craig

Mackenzie Hay can speak a few words of French, hold a pencil properly, and is learning numbers, colours and countries. He has been taught these in structured learning classes he attends three days a week at St Kentigern private preschool.

Mackenzie is 3 years old.

For his mum Nina Hay, it's about giving her children a head start. She is happy to pay $200 a week for the classes.

Her daughter Alianna, 5, attended the same programme last year. "It is not for everyone, but I wanted my kids to have the best start at school and having a proper transition programme has worked brilliantly for them," Nina says.

Parents are going to extremes to ensure their preschoolers have a head start on their peers, enrolling their under-5s in formal transition classes before they hit primary school.

Some aged 3 and 4 are attending such classes for up to seven hours a day, five days a week, studying subjects including French, maths and geography.

And while some education experts warn such intensive schooling is unnecessary and could put youngsters off learning, parents say the classes provide a perfect kick-start for their kids' education.

Enrolments for the privately run early literacy and numeracy programmes for children aged 3 and 4 are booming. Auckland's St Kentigern School opened its preschool in 2011 to meet growing demand. The roll is full and there is a waiting list of more than 50, with some pregnant mothers putting their child's name down for a place before they are born.

About 50 kids aged 3 and 4 attend daily structured education classes that cost $360 per child for a five-day week at St Kentigern. During the course of a seven-hour day they are taught foreign languages, maths and science.

"The demand has been incredible, especially this year," says Sue Nash, the preschool's director. "The transition classes mean that going to school is not so traumatic for the children as they are already well equipped with the basics.

"A structured learning environment for 3 and 4-year-olds might not be for everyone but our parents want the best possible start for their children and we are happy to provide it."

Other transition class providers proving popular include Poppies Kindergarten in Auckland and the boutique chain Little School. Other well-known fee-paying city schools that have set up preschool facilities include Kings School and Diocesan School for Girls.

Little School caters for about 350 kids at three centres in Wellington and one in Auckland. Classes cost $64 a day.

"Numbers have increased significantly this year and our enrolment officer's phone won't stop ringing," explains Maria Johnson, Little School's founder. "Our model is working well here and we are also opening three more of our centres in China, where parents like our structured approach." Many regular primary schools and kindys offer free or inexpensive readiness for school classes that are not as formal as their privately operated counterparts.

The Auckland Kindergarten Association oversees 106 preschool centres across the city, catering for about 6000 children. The kindys have a more play-based learning programme for under-5s.

The association's marketing executive, Talei Williams, insists there is no evidence children need additional tutoring beyond a quality preschool.

She believes it is parents who are driving the need to put children aged 3 and 4 into structured classes - and warns kids could get turned off learning as a result.

"Learning should be fun and children should be allowed the space to just be kids," she says.

Rawiri Brell, the Education Ministry's deputy secretary for early years, parents and whanau, believes a level-headed attitude is needed to prepare kids for school.

"Taking a narrow approach to teaching very young children may risk turning them off learning, making the transition to school less successful," he says.

Growing Up In New Zealand provides data to the Government for planning purposes from an ongoing longitudinal study of 7000 children and their families.

Dr Susan Morton, who heads the study, says statistics show education is one of the biggest concerns for parents by the time their children reach 2.

"Concerns about increased competition in the job market and for access to higher education places in the future seems to be at the front of parents' minds," Morton adds.

So how hard should we expect our preschoolers to swot? Or should we just allow them their childhood, knowing there are quite enough years ahead of them for study and work?

In Auckland, Jo Su pays $40 a week to send son Hilson, 4, to Mt Roskill Kindergarten. She says her experiences of attending a strict preschool in her native China led her to put her children into a more relaxed environment. At Mt Roskill there is more focus on play-based learning.

"In China, there was no room for creativity. It was very pushy and competitive and I didn't want that for my kids. They have their whole life ahead of them to work and learn and it is important to let them just be children."

She says Hilson gets up early in the morning and can't wait to get to kindy to be with his friends.

"He is very happy and that means more to me than whether he can add up numbers or read and write well the day he starts school."

Across the city, though, Nina Hay says transition-to-school classes are about giving her children a head start.

Alianna, 5, and Mackenzie, 3, have loved the classes.

"I wanted my children to know how to read and write properly before they went to primary," she says. "Mackenzie seems happy and settled and he has learned to sit still at his desk in class. I am not sure if he is ahead of others with his learning but his confidence levels have definitely improved."

Where children should be at - and when

Age 2: Your child is barely out of nappies but they will be talking, learning words quickly and might be using two word sentences like "Eat bikkie".

Dr Carrie Barber, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Waikato, explains that emotionally they will already be practising asserting control over themselves and their world, with tantrums of frustration when it doesn't work.

Barber says: "Most 2-year-olds recognise familiar peers and may express affection for them. They will be walking confidently and beginning to run, jump and climb, but still holding their upper body stiffly." However, Tony Sissons, longstanding principal at Kings School in Auckland, believes most are still tentative about the world around them.

"At 2, kids tend to play around others but are contented with their own exploration. They will recognise familiar faces most of the time. But this can upset Aunt Georgina as they don't have favourites."

Age 4: In the final year before they go to primary school, children will be more confident and are developing real friendships with other kids.

Barber says: "The child's language is much more fluent, and the parent should be able to understand most of what they say. They should also be displaying as much joy and curiosity as sadness and anger. Physically, they can jump, throw a ball, catch it some of the time and are developing fine motor skills such as holding a pencil or crayon, picking up and playing with small toys."

Sissons says: "At this age, most can recount shapes, colours and numbers. Some will have difficulty with letters. They will be able to count the number of biscuits or sweets they have been bribed with."

Age 6: By 6, children are settling into school life and should be starting to master academic skills like writing letters, basic reading, maths.

Barber says: "Emotionally they are starting to show a distinct personality. They will also start to develop skills at what they enjoy- a sport, or a musical instrument or drawing."

Sissons says: "A significant part of their personality has been formed and you will know it. They are beginning to decide who they like and who they don't, and why."

Age 8: Tennis-mad Mitchell Heaven from Snells Beach School, North Auckland, is beginning to understand what is expected of him at school.

Experts reckon this is normal by age 8. By this stage, kids should be reading and writing at a basic level and teachers should be able to tell if they are meeting academic standards.

Mitchell's mum Rebecca says she is happy with the way her son is progressing and believes the school keeps her fully informed of his progress. Mitchell says he "loves" going to school.

"Mitchell knows the rules and he goes by the rules," she says. "He is ahead with his reading and spelling and knows what homework he has to do.

"I think kids should have a good balance of class work and physical activity and I feel both are catered for well at his school."

Age 10: A major change at 10 is when a child's learning shifts from learning to read, to having to read in order to learn.

Barber says: "The child has pretty good control and also knows when it's appropriate to express emotions. Boys and girls usually play separately. Bullying may look different for boys and girls-for boys it is more physical, along with taunts; for girls it may be more about relationships, being excluded or turning on your friends."

Sissons says: "Socially, they are making lasting friendships. The shift to assessing information becomes important, too. Quality teachers know exactly how a child is performing and there are no excuses for parents or the child to be unaware of the child's abilities."

Age 12: Grace Jack is in her final year at Northcross Intermediate on Auckland's North Shore. She knows this period is crucial for preparing her for high school.

Experts say by 12, Grace should be mastering basic academics and starting to think more systematically and abstractly while developing individual interests and passions.

Last year, she excelled at writing and maths. She hopes to go on to further education and perhaps work in physiotherapy.

"The exams started to get really hard last year so I am aware that the schoolwork is being stepped up for high school," Grace says. "I expect it to get even harder this year but I think I know what is expected of me and I think I am being well prepared.

"It is good to know what level you are expected to be at because then you can push yourself to get there and achieve. But it is not all work we do. We are also encouraged to behave in a good way and be respectful towards others."

Grace's only gripe is she feels she does not get enough time during the day to play with her friends.

"We used to get about an hour for lunch but that has been halved" she says. "I don't think that is fair and I would like a bit more time with my friends."

Grace's mum Helen is satisfied with Northcross. "She has great teachers and a well rounded and supportive education system around her," Helen says.

- Herald on Sunday

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