Should We Be Worried About Learning Loss in Early Childhood?

“Instructional time” has long been a phrase that sets my teeth on edge, used as it is to keep children in seats and to eliminate recess from their day. But recently another phrase has me clenching my teeth. That phrase is “learning loss,” which seems to be on everybody’s lips lately. Last week I even read an article about the “devastating” learning loss preschoolers are experiencing due to the pandemic.

I’m sorry, but how devastating could it be? What learning, specifically, is being lost? The ability to meet unrealistic standards imposed on them by people who don’t understand child development, including the ridiculous expectation that they read and write by the end of kindergarten? The capacity to fill in worksheets or stare at a computer screen, or to take useless tests? The ability to handle pressure they should never have been exposed to in the first place?

As I wrote in an earlier post, I wonder when school became the end-all and be-all for children. Especially for the young ones – who, until recently in history, were never part of the schooling scene anyway and managed to do just fine. And I certainly don’t understand why so many parents and policymakers have concluded that children who don’t spend their early years in an academic setting will fall behind and remain that way for life. Fall behind in what?

As I mentioned in that earlier post, I personally had no opportunity to attend either preschool or kindergarten. We’ll never know, of course, whether my life could have been more “successful” had I attended. But if early childhood education then had looked like it does now, I would have suffered much greater learning loss had I attended. By that I mean that I would have missed out on all the hours and hours of play I participated in, which stimulated my imagination, challenged me, and developed skills I wouldn’t have otherwise acquired. I wouldn’t have had time for the daydreaming that sparked my creativity. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to explore, investigate, discover, and gain knowledge on my own, all of which turned me into a lifelong learner.

Thankfully, when preschool and kindergarten first became more commonplace, it didn’t look as it does now. Back then, enrolled children had experiences like those I had in childhood – because adults still believed children had the right to be children! Back then, preschool and kindergarten offered opportunities for children to experience play of all kinds, through which they learned to share, take turns, negotiate, and otherwise boost their social-emotional skills. Through which they stretched their imagination, discovered their likes and dislikes, and began to develop skills in ways that would serve them for life. Nobody thought it was necessary for them to acquire first- and second-grade academic skills before the age of 6. Nobody thought children would remain unaccomplished throughout life if they didn’t spend every daytime hour at a desk and every evening agonizing over homework.

Apparently, most adults now believe that having missed a few months of what they shouldn’t have been doing in the first place, children are doomed.

But you know what? I keep hearing stories about happier, calmer children. It makes sense because, although isolated from their peers, for the first time in their young lives they have the chance to be children. Unless they’re among the unfortunate little ones forced to do worksheets or to sit in front of computers, even while at home, they’re not living according to a clock and actually have free time. They’re not stressed out because they can’t meet unrealistic expectations. They’re not forced to comply with somebody else’s idea of learning. They’re getting to play! (What a novel idea, huh?)

Let me tell you a bit about Steven Spielberg. He wasn’t thrilled with school and had average grades. But his mom always encouraged his childhood explorations and his interest in movie making. At first he simply used the family’s home movie camera to record family events. But by the time Spielberg was 16, thanks to his explorations and the freedom he had to pursue his passions, he’d already filmed a feature-length science fiction movie.

Would Spielberg have become such a successful film director if he’d been made to stop “playing” with the camera and instead attend to hours of homework? To memorize information completely irrelevant to his life in order to take endless tests? Again, we’ll never know. But his is one of hundreds of similar stories told by people whose work we know well.

Imagine, if you will, a parent who, during this rare period in history

  • provides crayons, paints, and paper to the child who demonstrates an interest in creating art.
  • sharse the kitchen with the child who shows an interest in cooking or baking.
  • takes this opportunity to read even more books to their child.
  • exposes the child with a love of music and/or dance to a variety of musical genres.
  • provides various construction materials to the child with a budding passion for building.
  • encourages the child with a flair for the dramatic to play dress-up or put on productions.
  • explores the wonders of the backyard with the child fascinated by nature.
  • makes it possible for the child with a scientific bent to conduct experiments.

We don’t know if these experiences will lead to lifelong pursuits. But we do know that this is the way children are meant to learn – and to discover the passions that lead to lifelong pursuits. What are children discovering when obliged to meet standards all day, every day? To properly grasp a pencil or read and write long before they’re developmentally ready? To fill out worksheets, or to pass tests created by people who don’t know the true definition of education?

Learning loss? I want to know what kind of learning we’re talking about when we utter those words. If it means children will have forgotten nonsense they were forced to memorize, I’m not going to worry about it. And I hope you won’t either.

Below is some food for thought I came across on Facebook. I love it, of course, because it so beautifully makes my point!


  • Margie Powell says:

    Thank you for expressing so cogently and powerfully what high quality childhood experiences are and the long term impact of learning through discovery, based on children’s interests! That’s how I was trained and how I’ve worked with preschoolers, with the mission of sharing with families this process of learning and the life-long skills children develop. Love your energy, passion, and reading your blog! Margie Powell

    • Rae says:

      Thank you, Margie! And thank you for doing what’s best for children! I’m so happy to learn that you pass your wisdom along to the parents.

  • Rebecca says:

    Thank you, Rae. My little grand daughter will begin kindergarten. Although her parents are not overly concerned, they witnessed some of the children already reading. Fortunately, they have me to reassure them. But gosh, this is hard on our young families. My granddaughter will ‘meet’ her teacher tomorrow online. Probably will do an ‘evaluation’. I remember Bev warning how these tests make kids feel stupid.

    • Rae says:

      Thanks for sharing, Rebecca. I’m glad you brought up the point about other children already reading. That’s where so much of the fear comes in for parents. They’re terrified that their child will fall behind! What they need to know is that, by the time children are in 3rd grade, we can’t even tell who read early and who read late! It just doesn’t matter! I’m glad your granddaughter has you to reassure her parents!

  • Joseph Herzog says:

    Memory is rarely, if ever lost. As we age, there is a lot more material to recall and that often takes more time than expected. The brain only shunts away to it’s far corners the things it doesn’t find important, novel or things that lack enough emotional context. The standards we have set for children lack any real empirical basis and are usually promoted for the self satisfaction of adults, many of whom have no background in education or in how children actually learn.

    • Rae says:

      Well said, as usual, Joe! Eric Jensen uses the terms “implicit” and “explicit” learning. He says learning to ride a bike is an example of implicit — something you wouldn’t forget if you were asked to do it in 5 years. An example of explicit learning is learning the capital of Peru — something you could very well forget 5 years later. When I think about learning loss, I think about all the explicit (read: useless) stuff we feed children so they can regurgitate it on tests.

  • Sharmila says:

    Thank you, Rae, I am on the same page with you on this. It makes me cringe too when I hear words such as instructional time, learning loss, he/still can’t write their name and they are 4. So what ! if they can’t write their name at 4 but are able to independently tie their shoelace and button up their clothes. This is a constant battle I face everyday while at work, especially with keeping up with standards and holding staff accountable for aligning all their activities to standards and learning outcomes. We talk about choice and student agency. Are we really giving our children a choice and agency when it is us adults who are choosing the resources, setting up activities, expecting them to complete tasks pre-planned in order to meet the objectives of the lesson? I also cringe when I hear that the expectation of early years is to prepare them for grade one or for the future. Focusing on preparing them for the future, we tend to forget their present, where they are at and meet their needs. What really hurts me is when its time for reporting, giving students grades like weak, progressing, exceeding, etc. I honestly don’t mind having anecdotal notes of the child’s progress and development in order to help enhance the child’s learning experiences. However, my personal opinion is that labeling children such as developing, progressing and so only tends to make the teachers see what the children can’t do and not at what they can do. Furthermore, this also creates panic amongst the parents too, because they feel their child is not smart and then they try to push the child into writing and reading and math not realizing the stress they are causing their child. I have 2 granddaughters and fortunately, their parents want them to enjoy their childhood. They paint all day, have a messy play at home, bake with the mother, engage in gardening with the father, and so on. The freedom to actually play with no expectations, I can see how advanced she in skills such as communication, problem-solving, retelling stories that are meaningful like how she baked with mum the ingredients she used, and how many. All content areas such as science, literacy math are naturally integrated into her play and there is no stress of instructional time sitting at a table. My goal this year is to advocate for the children I work with and provide opportunities for them to be children and enjoy their childhood.

    • Rae says:

      Excellent “rant,” Sharmila!! I don’t know why we place so little value on their present. Why we sacrifice it in the name of their potential future. The children you work with are very lucky to have you. Best to you with your advocacy!

  • Beth Huber says:

    Thank you for voicing your knowledge and understanding of early childhood development and learning. I was trained this way for teaching and assessing children with and without disabilities. I have a strong belief that children learn through play and that concepts need to be taught within a bigger engaging study/theme/life related. Unfortunately, I live in the state of Iowa where administrators and people at the Education Department believe that testing (and doing well on assessments) is the thing that determines whether a child is doing well in school. Iowa had a history of students doing well on tests for a long time when the tests were developed in the Midwest and normed with white middle class children. Now that Iowa has more diversity, test scores are not as high for children, especially children of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. Therefore, school districts that have a large number of minority students have pushed down the curriculum to preschool students. I hate it! I push back as much as I can and continually cite research that shows that young children learn best through play, and memorization of letters, sounds, and other rote information gives a student an advantage in kindergarten but by third grade students who did not enter kindergarten with those skills have caught up. Of course, no one listens to me and I often get push back from administrators of not doing enough explicit teaching. Thank goodness I can read blogs by people like you who believe in children’s right to play. If I had business sense, I would open my own private preschool, but at 57-years-old I just don’t have the energy. It is so difficult each year to go through lessons that are so developmentally inappropriate for any children, and especially for children who lack a lot of resources at home.

    • Rae says:

      Beth, my heart aches for you and for all the teachers and children impacted by the ridiculous notion that testing = learning. I just don’t understand it. Is all of this nonsense the result of a deep-seated need to be able to quantify things? Is it related to money and the testing companies? Whatever it is, it’s clear to me that we’re certainly not putting the children first. I thank you for pushing back — and for all you do for the children, Beth. And if my blog posts help even a little bit, I’m very grateful.

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