In 1979, kids could roam, but not read

Is Your Child Ready for First Grade On Chicago Now, Christine Whitley reprints a 1979 first-grade readiness check list for parents. In addition to age (six years, six months), the child should be able to give his address to crossing guard, color between the lines, tell the left hand from the right, stand on one foot with eyes closed for five to ten seconds, repeat a short sentence and count eight to 10 pennies correctly. Also:

6. Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels?

8. Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?

“What a reality check!”, writes Lenore Skenazy on Free Range Kids.

 Can we all pause to remember that the very thing that terrifies so many parents today — a simple walk around the neighborhood — was not something reserved for kids age 10 or 12 or 15 just a generation ago? It was something that first graders did. And presumably those first graders got some practice as kindergarteners!

The academic expectations are much higher today, notes Slate’s XX Factor blog. In academic terms, the 1979 first grader would be on target for preschool today. “In terms of life skills, she’s heading for middle school, riding her two-wheeled bike and finding her own way home.”

Mom walked me to school the day before kindergarten started in 1957, so I’d know the route.  After that, I walked with my sister, a first grader, and all the other baby-boom kids in the neighborhood. We all walked or bicycled without parental supervision.

Parents were told not to teach their children to read because they might do it incorrectly.  So I had to learn from my sister, when she learned in first grade.

About Joanne


  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I love the Ames books! She’s really good at predicting when a previously happy child will become moody and irritating–which in turn helps me as a parent, because I can realize it’s a developmental issue, not a “deep crisis” issue.

    And honestly, if we had half-day Kindergarten and first grade, I might not be homeschooling.

    The funny thing is, with the whole letting kids play until 7 and not pushing academics, we had BETTER reading scores across the board. Almost as if there are developmental ages when some tasks are more important than others, and pushing too hard too young doesn’t actually help…..

    Nahhhh…. couldn’t be….

  2. I don’t think age is a big issue in academics, at least for advantaged kids, but the method and the academic format may be significant. All of my kids went to full-day Montessori preschools from age 3, which taught reading (using phonics) starting with the 3-year-olds. All of my kids were fluent readers by the time they started kindergarten (still in Montessori) and were adding and subtracting. The individual work and pace probably was part of their success (independent is their middle name) but age certainly wasn’t, since they were all very young (as much as two years) for their grades. They all rode bikes without training wheels at 4 and they certainly walked and ran all around the neighborhood, including the woods – not the case with the grandkids, sadly.

  3. The worst thing is that some of this lack of freedom is being enforced by the schools in my town. I found out this weekend that the school bus for our local elementary school is not even allowed to drop a child below 4th grade off at the bus stop unless there is an adult there to meet them. No adult and the kid has to stay on the bus and is driven back to school and a parent is called. And there is no “opt out” provision where parents can send a letter giving permission for their child to walk home from the bus stop by themselves or to walk with an older child.

  4. Those rules aren’t the schools’ fault, Chartermom — speak to their insurance company and risk manager. Plus the press would be ready to pounce with a major expose — blaming the schools, or course — if they dropped off a kid at the bus stop and there was a problem.

    Free-range parenting was definitely the norm in my generation (born 1954). Of course that enabled our parents to be utterly oblivious when many of us became the sex-drugs-rock ‘n’ roll generation (not Joanne, of course, and I’m taking the FIfth about myself).

  5. I read just recently that Arlington, VA has a law that kids under 8 (8 and under?) aren’t allowed to play in a fenced yard without someone over 14?16? present. My kids would have thought that was tantamount to jail. Yes, it’s a response to lawyers and it’s way beyond unfortunate. I’m glad my kids are grown, but they’ll have to deal with the issues with their own kids.

  6. This is a question that has dogged me all my life. When I was 6, a friend died when she was ice skating, fell through the too-thin ice, and no-one was around to pull her out. Her parents were far from careless; they doted on her. But in 1952 it would never have occurred to anyone to run around testing every square inch of ice to see if it was OK. It was January, it had been very cold, people had been skating on that pond for weeks. At some point you have to let go, even if once in a while someone comes to grief.

  7. My childhood small-town schoolyard wasn’t even fenced; completely open to fields, a river and a lovely hill with rock formations that made a lovely fort – and we slid down it in winter. In nice weather, teachers might be outside because they enjoyed it, but if the weather was iffy or they were busy, we were on our own – they rung a bell out of the window when it was time to come in. There were buses only for the rural area; village kids walked or biked, even though it might be a couple of miles. By 8-10, we routinely biked miles to gather wild berries or tree fruits (to eat, can or make jam) or to fish. We also biked 3-5 miles to the local swimming hole (river), which had no lifeguards, dock, rope lines etc. There were always other kids there, but adults only if they brought small children; ditto for skating on local ponds (we all knew not to skate on the river; it ran fast enough that there were always thin spots). My kids were raised in suburbia, but they covered the whole neighborhood on their own by the time they started school.

  8. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    If you consider childhood as training for a dangerous world, a sensible definition, then you might consider the following:

    Military training that never kills anyone, ever, is almost certainly not producing the sorts of soldiers that you want. On the other hand, military training that is so grueling that it kills 90% of the recruits might produce magnificent soldiers, but it’s probably killing too many recruits.

    There’s a happy medium for crafting soldiers; if the possibility of accidents isn’t non-zero, then the training doesn’t resemble real combat enough. Throw in good training, some live fire exercises, some grueling obstacles… eventually someone is going to get shot or fall off the tower or collapse of exhaustion. Soldiers will die; that’s the unavoidable statistical price you pay for good basic training. They die from exercise-related stress (between 5 and 6 per year on average in the U.S.) and they die from accidents (a little over 1 per year on average). Keep in mind that the number of people who go through basic training every year is astonishingly small compared to the general population.

    Likewise, if the possibility of accidents for children is non-zero, then their childhood probably doesn’t resemble real life enough to prepare them. Their training — that is, their physical development, the development of their ability to assess risk, and the development of their ability to tackle difficult situations — isn’t going to prepare them optimally for life.

    Obviously, we don’t want to kill all of the kids, and almost certainly not even 10% of them. But we’re probably doing them all a disservice if none of them are getting broken arms, broken legs, split lips… and yes, even killed. A child’s death is tragedy, but it may be a tragedy we have to endure from time to time, tearfully and regrettably, if we want to produce a society filled with a certain kind of confident, competent person.

    The question, as always, is where is that happy medium? Maybe this is it. Maybe not.

    But the first person to say she’s smiling in a cave on the other side of the Tesseract gets pillow-smacked.

    And the first person to point out that I got some trivial detail wrong about a reference to a book I last read in 1986 gets pillow-smacked.

  9. When my son was 2, we went to visit friends in Israel. It happened that I had a copy of Parenting magazine to read on the flight that included a feature on playground safety (advocating the safer the better, needless to say).

    So arriving in Israel and taking him to playgrounds there was positively amusing — they were death traps. My favorite was one of those hanging bridge things, a wooden bridge with chain handrails. It was a good 12 feet up, over a paved surface (no wimpy spongelike safety surfacing), with big gaps between the slats of the bridge. And there were old-fashioned swings that fit 2 kids, wood and box-shaped, with sharp corners at a height perfectly calculated to crack any passing tot in the head.

    All I can say is, there was a cultural difference regarding the value of safety in playground design.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Been a long time, but I don’t recall any of my little buddies being killed or crippled by their play. And that was before most of the anecdotes above.

    One commenter hit the nail. The academic preparedness is better today, or is supposed to be. But then what….? Apparently either nothing, or somewhat less than nothing. The results at the end are worse.

    Could be well meant. Could also be that making a fuss about kids getting ready for kindergarten is easier than making a fuss about disruptive ninth-graders or intentional non-learners, or dumbed-down curriculum in seventh grade.