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Ontario's children head off to school as early as three years old. Some Nova Scotia students start at the age of 4. And girls and boys in Prince Edward Island and British Columbia strap on their backpacks at five years old.

So what is the right age to start school?

The debate has once again moved to the forefront as Statistics Canada added to the mountain of research on gender disparities in education by releasing a study yesterday that shows girls and boys differ in their readiness to learn as they enter school at the age of 5.

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The study found that, in general, girls are more ready to learn than boys. At five years old, girls have better communication skills, attention and self-control, while boys display more curiosity. The study also showed there were no differences in the work effort, cleanliness or co-operative play between the sexes.

The results of this study do not necessarily mean there are benefits to starting school earlier, researchers say. In fact, those interviewed refused to speculate on the age at which children are more or less ready to enter the public education system.

Clyde Hertzman, a professor at the University of British Columbia and director of the Human Early Learning Partnership, said there has not been any useful studies on how the different provincial policies on school entry affect readiness to learn. The debate over when children should start school takes up much space, but there isn't any strong evidence backing either side, said Prof. Hertzman, who studies school readiness.

But he said that enrolling children in school at an early age is beneficial as long as the program is developmentally appropriate, and involves a lot of play-based activities.

"What is more important is the quality of the environment than the label that you put on it," he said.

Martha Friendly, co-ordinator of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit of the University of Toronto, echoed the sentiment.

"If the programs in the public school system are inappropriately didactic, approach learning narrowly by focusing on school-readiness skills, don't permit children flexibility, choice and relative freedom of movement . . . then I think that just about any age is too young to start," Prof. Friendly said.

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She said that some countries, especially in Europe, have strong child-care programs to help children transition into compulsory schooling at the age of 7.

Across Canada, a few provinces are playing with the right age children should start school. The thought behind it: By putting youngsters into a formal learning environment early, they will do better later on.

"We know that investing dollars and investing human resources when kids are little means that as they go through school, they've had a better start so they're going to do better later on," Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne said.

In Ontario, children who turn 4 by the end of December have the option of enrolling in junior kindergarten that year. Alberta recently quashed the idea of bringing four-year-olds into its education system and creating a junior kindergarten class partly because it didn't receive the support of school administrators who believed children were better off at home at such a young age.

Nova Scotia, meanwhile, has piloted a pre-primary class in 19 of its schools for four-year-olds. Now in its second year, teachers have reported that children coming out the program have better social skills and are more willing to learn.

"We want to make sure kids are ready for school at any earlier age," said Peter McLaughlin, spokesman for Nova Scotia Education.

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The opposite is happening in Prince Edward Island. This fall, children were required to be five years old by the end of September when they entered kindergarten. Three years ago, they had to be 5 by the end of January.

"People felt that children would be more prepared to learn if they were a little bit older," government spokeswoman Jean Doherty said.

Politics aside, one expert on school readiness said that children who enroll in kindergarten or even attend an early-childhood program around the age of 5 tend to adjust better to the school environment. Magdalena Janus, an assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience at McMaster University, said those children know how to follow rules and are exposed to working with others in their age group.

"Five years old is a little bit of a magic age in terms of the child development," Prof. Janus said. "Around that age, children become more independent, and in many cultures across the world, take on most responsibility."

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About the Author
Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More


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