I couldn’t wait for school to start. Since my son was a year-and-a-half, I wanted a place to drop him off for some part of the week. I didn’t care so much about getting him school-ready, I mostly wanted a few opportunities to be by myself. I wanted momentary breaks from disciplining, looking for shoes, and preparing snacks. I daydreamed about running errands without tears, negotiation, child-schlepping, and hearing over and over again, “Can we buy this?” Although I fantasized about sending my son to preschool for years, it didn’t make sense financially. I waited it out, knowing that at four, he’d be able to go for free, thanks to voluntary pre-k.

We moved to Orlando the year before he’d start school, and I started asking moms I met around town where their kids went. Many recommended the same place, only a mile from my house, so it was a quick sell. I toured the school once and saw four-year-olds sitting at desks and working on worksheets. One teacher stood by a board of letters, pointing to N and asking her students what words start with that letter. The classrooms were strangely quiet and structured for such a young age, but I nodded along, especially when the director told me they have a 100 percent pass rate on the kindergarten entrance exam.

I went to the open house months later. My son’s teacher told me she’s now teaching preschoolers when she used to teach first and second graders. She again mentioned their amazing pass rates and assured us our kids would learn much more than expected. She handed us folders containing her lesson plans, which outlined the workbook pages they’d complete, and the weekly assessments they’d be subjected to. I was not impressed. My excitement began to fade.

I saw first-hand how a score-obsessed education robs young kids of their childhood, and with that, their wonder, enthusiasm, and incredible ability to engage completely with the moment. I taught elementary school in Florida myself and often seized lunchtime as an opportunity to work on reading skills with small groups. I’d like to say I was that dedicated to instilling a love of literature in them, but I mostly had to get them to score well on the high-stakes assessment that was coming. We allotted huge chunks of time to sitting them in front of computers to test, and test, and when we got the results back we’d teach and drill. Their true progress rarely matched our efforts as the intense pressure of it all took the fun out of learning, the playfulness out of childhood, and left many students frustrated and overwhelmed. For these reasons, I wasn’t thrilled by all the benefits the teacher boasted about. I simply wanted my outgoing son to enjoy a fun and engaging environment with others his age. So I ignored the red flags until he actually went.

When I picked my son up on the first day of school, the teacher broke some bad news. She sighed, “Well, he’s a talker, but don’t worry, we’ll work on that.”

I was taken aback because I thought being enthusiastic, outgoing, and eager to express and communicate would be celebrated at his age, but as his teacher gave me the report, my son hung his head as if he had done something wrong. He wasn’t the only child whose behavior was commented on. She told another mom her daughter has a hard time sitting still, and another that hers is a bit stubborn. These conversations confirmed my suspicions that the focus in this classroom was missing the mark of true learning. Of course I want my child to get a good education, but I also want the learning environment to match his age-appropriate development and nurture his spirit. I want my son to learn self-control and respect. He should take turns talking and refrain from interrupting. I also expect him to sit when it’s appropriate and follow rules and routines. However, I also want him to be what he is: a four-year-old. I’m unwilling to let his playful and enthusiastic nature get pushed out of him in the name of education and preparedness.

In fact, it’s these very qualities that drive young children to learn. Most preschoolers are naturally talkative and antsy. They like to move, explore, and play, and for good reason – it’s adaptive and fundamental in supporting their intellectual, emotional, and social development. The most effective lessons of four-year-olds aren’t delivered in the form of worksheets, flashcards, and structured activities, but through play. Although there’s a time and a place for direct instruction, children this age learn best when they don’t even know they’re learning because they’re so engaged and self-driven.

Dr. David Whitebread, a developmental psychologist at Cambridge University, conducts his research on the importance of play. He states, “There is very clear evidence that children’s cognitive development and emotional well-being are related to the quality of their play… The really big concern over the last decade is the relative loss of opportunities for children to engage in child-led play. Children’s lives are much more structured than they have ever been – and there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest this can be detrimental.”

I imagined my son would love going to pre-k to sing, read, build, and paint. However, there is a pressure to conform and achieve that taints the joy and authenticity of this experience. The calendar was chock-full of regular assessments even though the biggest lessons at this age aren’t even measurable. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early childhood development expert, said in her acceptance speech of the Deborah Meier award, “The most important competencies in young children can’t be tested – we all know this. Naming letters and numbers is superficial and almost irrelevant in relation to the competencies we want to help children develop: self-regulation, problem-solving ability, social and emotional competence, imagination, initiative, curiosity, original thinking – these capacities make or break success in school and life and they can’t be reduced to numbers…[Children] have to move, use their senses, get their hands on things, interact with other kids and teachers, create, invent. But in this twisted time, young children starting public pre-K at the age of 4 are expected to learn through rigorous instruction.”

Our constant directing and instructing is interfering with our children’s true learning. Our good intentions are limiting them. I never taught my son how to play his Leap Frog computer, mix colors to make new ones, put puzzles together, or build block towers, but he knows how to do all these things. I never explicitly taught him how to walk or talk either, but his interest and readiness guided him.

I appreciate the good intentions of universal pre-k, which is to give all children, especially those who wouldn’t have it otherwise, exposure to literacy and familiarity with a school setting. I’m a supporter of this idealistic notion, but until the ultimate goal of early childhood education is to truly nurture our kids’ curiosity and creativity, we won’t be helping them reach their full potential. Until we celebrate our children’s individuality and trust in their own timing and readiness, we’re forcing conformity onto them. Our babies and toddlers walk and talk at different times, the time that is right for them, and reading and writing is the same. Of course I want my child prepared for what’s next, but if kindergarten is developmentally appropriate, it shouldn’t require this extensive training. Until our teachers are cultivators of wonder, the true learning of our children will be interrupted.

I knew my son would eventually adjust to his pre-k school, but I also knew it wouldn’t be in his best interest. I’m sure the right school and right teacher are out there for him, but for now, they can be found at home.