Do kindergartners really need homework?
If you polled most Americans, the answer would likely be a resounding no. Yet a 2015 study found that American kindergartners were spending nearly a half hour on homework each night.
Anecdotally, that figure can be much higher. A 2018 article in Ed Week included quotes from several American parents claiming their 5-year-olds often spent between 60 and 90 minutes on homework a night.
It’s not just kindergartners—elementary schoolers in general seem to have far more homework than their parents’ generation.
“I grew up in the early 1980s, and I remember having a worksheet of homework a night (when I was young), but it was a very quick worksheet. Then I was out the door. I had plenty of time to play,” says Angela Hanscom, pediatric occupational therapist and founder of Timbernook, a nature-based experience program for kids.
“But now, (it’s) becoming a norm for homework to take at least an hour or more for young children. When my daughter was eight, it took her 2-3 hours a night to do her homework.”
Studies have found that homework can be a useful tool for elevating student achievement in the American school system. However, this relationship is much stronger for secondary students (those in grades 7 through 12). For younger students, less seems to be more.
Harris Cooper, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University and a former Director of the school’s Program in Education, led a 2006 review of over 60 studies on the topic. The findings pointed to a “10-minute rule” as being a good guide for the amount of homework American teachers should assign.
This rule dictates that teachers add 10 minutes of homework a night as students progress one grade. So first-graders receive 10 minutes of homework a night, second-graders receive 20 minutes, third-graders receive 30 minutes, all the way up to a high school senior receiving about two hours. Beyond that, and you’re often just assigning more homework for the sake of more homework. Additionally, the nature of the homework itself is extremely important, particularly if you’re going to assign it to children.
“Homework for young students should be short, lead to success without much struggle, occasionally involve parents and, when possible, use out-of-school activities that kids enjoy, such as their sports teams or high-interest reading,” Cooper told Duke Today.
When such criteria are not met, homework can certainly do more harm than good. In addition to potentially creating negative attitudes around school and learning, ill-conceived homework can also keep kids from more important things—like play.
In the opinion of many professionals, unstructured play (particularly unstructured outdoor play) is the single most important activity for children.
A 2018 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics confirms that play enhances creativity, imagination, dexterity, boldness, teamwork skills, stress-management skills, confidence, conflict resolution skills, decision-making skills, problem-solving skills and learning behavior. Play is an essential part of the human experience, and a lack of play can have troubling short and long-term mental, physical and emotional ramifications for children.
Yet play’s never been more endangered in America than it is right now. According to the Child Mind Institute, the average American kid spends just 4-7 minutes per day on unstructured outdoor play.
Many modern elementary schools other far too few opportunities for vigorous movement and play throughout the school day, and the school days generally tend to stretch out too long. The average American kid spends roughly nine hours a day sitting down. This is a big reason why fidgeting and attention issues are at an all-time high.
After a day spent cooped up in a classroom where they’re often confronted with boring lessons geared more towards preparation for standardized tests than fostering a love for learning, should 8 or 9-year-old kids then come home with a mountain of homework to complete?
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Children are also often being assigned homework that reinforces only superficial learning, meaning they require little critical or creative thinking and only have one right answer. These assignments are often categorized as “busy work.”
“There’s a lot of memorization and regurgitation. So how much are they really learning? Are they making really deep connections? Probably not,” says Hanscom.
“(And it’s) restricting their play opportunities, they’re not getting to do some of that advanced play that they desperately need for social skills, problem solving, creativity—all that stuff we’re looking for in careers later on.”
Hanscom believes better alternatives could center around more open-ended projects which allow for children to develop creativity and initiative while also looping in concepts being taught in school.
For example, teachers could ask students to build a fort on their own and then create a diagram of its measurements. They could then bring those figures to class to work on math and geometry concepts, and write about their unique experience of constructing the fort to develop literacy skills.
“Maybe it’s a once-a-week thing—this week, this is your project,” Hanscom says. “Homework that actually would be meaningful to children and something they’d want to do and includes learning that actually carries over into the classroom would be perfect.”
This is also the type of homework parents may actually enjoy helping their child complete rather than the mind-numbing worksheets that have become the norm. Imagine that—homework that actually brings families closer together instead of driving them apart.
And for those who worry that less homework will cause America to “fall behind,” their fears appear to be misguided. For example, in 2017, a school district in Hillsborough, California drastically reduced the amount of homework assigned to their elementary school students. One measure included banning due dates which fell on a day immediately following a weekend or break. Despite less homework, the students performed just as well on the state standardized test as they had in previous years.
Then there’s the nordic country of Finland, whose children have shorter school days, spend more of their school days outdoors, and have next to no homework compared to American children. 15-year-olds in Finland spend only slightly more time on homework than kindergartners in America. Yet Finland’s students consistently rank among the best in the world in reading, science and math.
Based on the objective and anecdotal evidence, making it mandatory for elementary school teachers to assign homework every night seems misguided. According to Truthout, this is the case in Fremont, California, where a “district has mandated that homework be given in every grade, K-12, five nights a week.”
While many parents may believe their little ones receive too much homework, they can sometimes feel powerless to change it. It’s always a good idea to talk with the teacher to see what their goal is for the homework and how long they expect the students to spend on it. If you’re seeing a disconnect between their expectation and the length of time it’s taking your child to complete assignments, it may be a result of how they’re actually doing the homework.
For example, if they’re sitting right down at the table to do their assignments immediately after school, there’s a high chance their brain feels worn out and their body craves movement. For this reason, Hanscom recommends kids play outdoors for at least one hour after school before taking on any homework.
“I think having them play outdoors for at least an hour before they sit down is going to help with attention. Because if they go straight to homework right when they get home, they’re probably not going to able to focus on it,” says Hanscom.
Some students also find it easier to complete their assignments the next morning. Ultimately, if you find the homework load is leaving your child chained to the kitchen table for hours a day, it’s worth a deeper discussion.
“I do think it’s OK to go to teachers and say, ‘Hey, this is taking way too long. This doesn’t feel right,’” says Hanscom.
“When homework takes away from meaningful opportunities for kids, that’s a problem.”
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