Starting at six

Is six the right age to start school? RACHEL MCFEDRIES explores this age-old debate.

Starting school at six – it’s a hot topic that gets discussed frequently around the playground, the kindy carpark, and in online parenting groups. It’s becoming more common for children here in New Zealand, yet can be an incredibly tricky decision to navigate as a parent. There are many factors to take into consideration; your child’s passions and personality, what type of school environment they’ll be entering into, their birth order, and your family’s own personal rhythm and routine.

My six-year-old son had his very first day of school a few weeks ago. When we decided not to start him at five, it really felt like we were going against the grain. But in my heart of hearts, I knew that the classroom wasn’t the right place for my nature-loving adventurous five-year-old boy. He was happiest when he was bug hunting, climbing trees, and building rivers in the sandpit. I definitely didn’t want that to stop.

There is a growing awareness of the value of play and not pushing formal academic learning too early. More parents are becoming aware of the potential benefits of starting their children later, which can include having more time for social and emotional development. Studies have also shown that when children have a later start at school, there can be less hyperactivity and inattention in the classroom.

Internationally, the most common age for children to start school is six. We as New Zealanders expect children to start on or near their fifth birthday because that’s what we’ve grown up with; it’s our cultural norm. Yet not many parents are aware that children don’t actually have to start at five; the Ministry of Education states that children can start at any time before the age of six.

So why might you be different and consider starting your child later? You might have a child who just doesn’t seem quite ready to go into a classroom yet, and that’s okay! Formal learning needn’t be rushed. Multiple studies show that children’s reading levels even out by age 11, no matter what age they have started formal literacy lessons.

For my family, it was the best option as it allowed us to have an extra year slowing down with three small children. I didn’t have to rush our mornings to get to school by 9am nor be at school for pick up at 3pm. My son went to kindy and playcentre and was able to have another year learning through play, developing his leadership skills, and all without the pressure of school.

Some children might be well suited to start school at five but others might just benefit from having a few more months in the free play environment of kindy or playcentre. As a parent, it’s valuable to know that this option is available and it is okay to choose that path should it suit your family. There can be a flexible approach and it is not a ‘one size fits all’ answer.

The facts: 

  • The Ministry of Education requires children to be enrolled in a school (or have an exemption for homeschooling) by their sixth birthday.
  • Children can continue to attend early childhood education centres until they are
    six years old.
  • The ‘20 hours free’ is still available until the child is six years old.
  • The WINZ childcare subsidy stops when the child turns five (unless the school has advised they can’t start until the beginning of the term straight after their fifth birthday).

My tips, if you are contemplating this decision:

  • Trust your instinct. You know your child best.
  • Have conversations with your child’s ECE teachers and also the teachers at your chosen school.
  • Look at how your chosen school incorporates play-based learning in the early years.
  • Read the research. A good place to start is at educationreview.co.nz or attend a talk by Nathan Wallis (neuroscience educator).

If you do decide to start your child at six:

  • Find like-minded people. This makes the journey so much easier as you are not alone in your decision.
  • Involve your child fully and have conversations about it early. They will wonder why some of their friends leave for school and some don’t. The standard line we used was “some children go to school when they’re five, others get to stay at kindy until they’re older”.
  • Try not to worry that your child might be “missing out”. Relax, play, and embrace the journey. You can incorporate early literacy and numeracy through play if you want to.

Would we do this again?

Ideally, we would have started our eldest at the beginning of Term Four 2018 as I felt comfortable that he was more suited for the classroom then. However, our situation was complicated by the fact that we were waiting for a school ballot result! Our second son turns five in August and he will most likely start at the beginning of 2020 at age five-and-a-half. As for our youngest wee girl, I’m anticipating that she’ll be wanting to follow her older brothers into school and will be emotionally ready for it at very close to five years old. It’s such an individual journey, and it’s wonderful that we can have the choice.