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Study: Less School, More Play Benefits Mental Health of Kids in Kindergarten and Early Education 

By Bo Thornton

American kids normally start Kindergarten at the age of five, with Pre-K programs turning kids into students at even earlier ages.  Some parents and school administrators around the world are wondering if holding kids back an extra year increases their odds of success.  

Research on the matter has shown mixed results. Some studies show that delaying school enrollment increases test scores later in life, while other studies suggest that any benefits actually decline over time

Matching the development and maturity levels of kids with starting school has proven to be a touchy situation. Many parents are choosing what is being called redshirting.  Redshirting is holding kids back and hoping what is called, the gift of time, will set them up for later academic success. It is estimated that 20 percent of kindergarteners in the U.S. are 6 years old.

Many countries around the world are turning from the American early education standards.  A study from Stanford University and the Danish National Centre for Social Research focuses on how delaying kindergarten could affect kids’ emotional well-being as well as academic success.

Data from the Danish National Birth Cohort Survey included nearly 36,000 mothers who gave birth in Denmark between 1996 and 2002.  The parents were surveyed about their children at ages 7 and 11. Participants reported the age that their child started kindergarten and answered a series of questions about their behavior and physical health. The survey also included 25 questions designed to gauge mental health. For this section, parents were given keywords and phrases like restless, overactive, cannot stay still for long and good attention span, sees work through to the end, and asked to report how true that was for their child within the previous six months.

Upon analyzing the surveys, the researchers found that delaying kids entering into kindergarten by one year led to significantly improved mental health at age seven and even more so at age 11.  The kids who were held back had lower chances of having self-control issues of inattentiveness and hyperactivity. Researchers think that this may be because children who start kindergarten later experience more playtime before jumping into the structured rigidity of school.

Keep in mind that these findings were based on the studies of Danish children and answers given by parents, not actual independent observation and testing. So it’s unclear how applicable or accurate these findings are to other Danish kids or kids in the United States or other countries. According to the researchers, the effects were most pronounced among children with higher-earning, better-educated parents, so these findings may only apply to a very specific, more privileged demographic. 

These results support a major theory behind redshirting.  The more time children get to play, the better. In fact, other past research has identified extended playtime as one of the best methods of boosting a child’s self-control as well as his or her creativity, reasoning and ability to regulate emotions

On the other hand, there are plenty of studies which suggest negative outcomes of redshirting, like decreased long-term educational success, especially for children from lower-income families.  More research is needed before any conclusive evidence for or against redshirting can be determined.  Until then it’s up to parents to decide what is best for their kids.

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