05/01/2014 04:14 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2014

College Prep for Kindergarteners?

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A kindergarten in New York has cancelled its end-of-the-year kiddie show in order to devote more time to college and career prep. In a letter to parents, the teachers explained:

The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please... know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.

Now, I don't doubt that these teachers THOUGHT they were making the best possible decision. But having just read the mind-blowing book, Free to Learn, by Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College as well as author of the standard college textbook, Psychology, it seems to me that school is giving its poor, prepped-out kids the very least of what they need the most: Free time.

Free time to do what looks like absolutely, Dartmouth-be-damned nothing: Playing house, running around, feeding an animal -- the stuff kids do when no one's teaching them that "Diploma begins with D. Can you draw a D?"

The thing about playing is that it's not separate from learning. It IS learning. In fact, if young kids aren't playing, chances are they are getting a fraction of the knowledge they would get if they were "just" goofing around. This will sound strange but instructing kids may actually backfire.

Consider one scene Gray describes in his book. Two kindergarteners are looking at some popsicle sticks with riddles on them. They're trying their very hardest to decipher them, because they are so eager to get the jokes. The teacher confiscates the sticks so the kids can concentrate on the lesson she's teaching... about the alphabet.

Do you honestly think they'll learn more when they return their attention to the lesson?

Here's another example from Gray's book: A researcher conducted an experiment on some 4- and 5-year-olds. She had a toy that you could make do four different things -- squeak, light up, buzz... whatever. She took a third of the kids into a room (one by one) and demonstrated how to make the toy squeak: You press this button here.

The second group she sort of ignored while she "played" with the toy and made it squeak, seemingly for her own fun.

The third group she simply handed the toy.

Later on, Groups 2 and 3 had discovered how to make the toy produce more effects than the Group 1 kids. Why? Group 1 was following instructions: They did what the teacher showed them. Groups 2 and 3 played.

Gray's point: By "teaching" children the traditional way -- sitting them down and spoon-feeding them information -- we are actually making them less curious, more passive and, finally, less educated, since all that gets into them is what the teacher tells them. Or at least a little bit of it. We are shutting down their natural inquisitiveness.

But unleashed from lesson plans, kids are on fire to learn. Need proof? They all learn how to speak! No classes required! Nowadays, kids also learn how to type. My sons, like their peers, keyboard at lightning speed despite no typing lessons. Their desire to communicate and have fun means they taught themselves. It was... child's play!

Eventually, kids who are curious will want to learn from books, from teachers, from tech. But substituting top-down "education" for free play isn't preparing little kids for college or careers.

It's preparing them to check out.