8 Reasons We Need to Stop Academic Creep

When my daughter moved up to the toddler room at child care, I was notified that she would begin learning a ‘letter of the month’. At two, really?

Our toddlers spend their days mastering coordination, language, and relationships, as well as deepening their understanding of the physical world around them. Movement, sensory play, exploration, and self discovery are what it’s all about at this age. Why do we perceive phonics to be of greater value than the experiences children are naturally drawn to, particularly for those who are still years away from the classroom?

Academic creep, the ultra-early introduction to formal learning, is so prevalent in today’s world that you may not even notice it. Or like many, you may assume it’ll prepare children for schooling success. If anything, I believe it’s doing the opposite.

Here are eight reasons why we need to slow down the childhood race and put an end to academic creep.


1. Movement matters most

Movement and sensory experiences create strong pathways in the brain, needed for the sophisticated ‘thinky’ tasks that come later (like reading and writing). If hands-on whole body learning experiences prepare our neurology for later success, skimping on it is simply dangerous. Are you prepared to take the chance?


2. Time misplaced

Spending time on academics takes it away from significantly more valuable and developmentally appropriate learning. For example, motor skills, receptive & expressive language development, vocabulary building, self help skills (wiping own nose, packing up, looking after belongings), learning songs & rhymes, social interactions, finding the joy in books, observing the way the world works, and let’s not forget the exploration & discovery that comes from self-guided play.


3. We’re already pushing children too hard, too young

Children’s brains are developmentally ready for reading and writing at approximately age seven. Our mainstream education system asks children to be developing competencies in these tasks at age five, two years ahead of when many can do so with proficiency and ease. Isn’t that bad enough? Why push younger and younger? Their brains aren’t ready!


4. Rote learning doesn’t equal true learning

Yes, a toddler is capable of learning phonics, I’ll admit it. However, is it authentic learning that will translate to their school work in later years? Generally no. True learning is about making connections- applying new discoveries onto that of old, layer by layer. For most toddlers, ‘a is for apple’ is disconnected from their everyday experiences and is therefore just fluff.


5. The joy of learning is lost

Where’s the fun in discovering letters and words at school if you’ve already had three years of doing it at child care? Many children will be bored stiff going through it all again, even if the deeper concepts haven’t yet been grasped (“the award for daydream mastery goes to…”).


6. It incorrectly communicates that academics is our highest value

Performing well at school may be one of society’s highest values but is it yours? Have you met one of the many people in this world who are super smart but unkind or who can’t communicate to save themselves? Is that the future you want for your child?


7. Driven by money, not research

Look at the voices fuelling the push for early academic learning. It doesn’t come from researchers or experts, it comes from marketers and the media. This means only one thing…money! Oh, and of course we can’t forget the influence of fellow parents, informed by said marketers and media!

Early Childhood Educators out there, we don’t have to teach academics in our settings simply because the parents ask us to. We are in a beautiful position to acknowledge their desires and then gently explain why waiting is best. Become a voice of reason, one that has pure intentions.


8. Noticeably missing from the Early Years Learning Framework

For readers who aren’t in the know, the Early Years Learning Framework (affectionately called ‘EYLF’) is the curriculum document which informs our practices for working with children in child care settings, preschools and kindergartens.

Did I miss the memo? Where in the EYLF document does it state that phonics has a place in high-quality settings? Oh, it doesn’t, you say? Well, there’s our final clue folks – case closed!


There you have it…

Eight reasons that academic creep is a recipe for disaster.  Yes, school-age children are finding it harder and harder to reach the literacy benchmarks in today’s standardised testing. However, toddlers learning phonics is not the answer, it will only exacerbate the problem.

Let’s give our children breathing space to discover who they are and what they’re on this earth to do.

Childhood is like a lamb shank. Put in the slow cooker with the right ingredients, plenty of time left to itself, and the occasional touch of love, it’ll come out like perfection. But put the same lamb shank in a pressure cooker, striving for the end result in half the time, it’s just not all that it could have been.


Let’s keep this much-needed conversation going…

What are your thoughts, questions or ponderings after reading?

Comments 10

  1. I’ve been in childcare/ early education for 26 yrs and I see and feel the pressure to teach a,b,c 1,2,3’s make crafts ext…It’s fear based driven by the unrealistic expectation to have children ready for school! My children are happiest when they are moving, exploring the world around us, exploring with paint (open ended art) we enjoy music n movement. We take our music to an assisted living home twice a month. I still never feel like I’m doing enough. I’m sure kids feel like they’re not measuring up either! Because they are expected to know things many of their brains are not development ready for! Your article validates my observations.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Kathy. It’s awful to know that many like you feel the same, that you’re not doing enough. When in reality you’re laying foundations for those children’s learning AND wellbeing. High quality care is essential but how that needs to look in my eyes is an extension of the home, where relationships are paramount. High quality does not mean force feeding academics.

  2. “Academic creep” is an excellent description of what is going on in so many early childhood settings. I coach in child development centers and the unrealistic expectations with curriculum are causing children to display negative behavior due to their frustration.

    1. Thanks for sharing your observations Janet. Agreed, it’s one of the ways to let us know that the environment isn’t meeting their developmental needs.

  3. You’re right about all of this BUT the fact that daydreaming is seen as a negative thing is also one of the by products of the academic creep. As for lamb shanks you haven’t had my spinach garlic and lamb (shank) marinaded in a yogurt chilli marinade for 4 hours and brought to perfection in less than an hour in a pressure cooker.

    1. Having time to daydream and simply be is hugely important for all of us, children especially. But when they default to this frequently due to poor focus, it leads to big challenges in the classroom. Happy to eat your lamb shanks anytime!

  4. Hi Clare,

    I’ve just been told about you and your approach to education for babies and toddlers from someone who attended a group you held recently.
    I am in agreement with so much of the information you share and would like to meet to discuss it.

    1. Hi Irene,

      I’m taking an offline break over the school holidays. You’re welcome to get in touch via email in the meantime – clare@thrivingchildren.com.au

      I don’t usually meet in person for requests such as these as I have many demands on my time, but it’s always nice to connect online with like-minded people.


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