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We mustn’t make preschool less fun for the 4-year-olds who need more help

Many of the parents who object to academic preschool are engaging in the very activities with their own children that are effective in laying the foundation for learning.

Which kind of preschool is more beneficial for young children: academic or play-based? Recent research has breathed new life into a debate that has been around for decades.

Deborah Stipek

For many parents and policymakers worried that children are being pushed into structured learning too early, there’s immediate concern when the word academics is associated with preschool.

Children need to have fun, be creative and make their own choices, they say. To them, the term academics connotes flashcards and a rigid, constrained environment. It’s the opposite of letting kids be kids and enjoying a childhood that will soon enough confront homework, lectures, testing, and sitting in desks all day.

Many of the parents who object to academic preschool are engaging in the very activities with their own children that are effective in laying the foundation for learning. They introduce numbers to their toddlers, counting fingers and toes; they read to them and engage in conversations that are helping them develop the vocabulary they need to be good readers, point out letters on signs and play games like chutes and ladders that teach counting.

But many children do not have the opportunity to engage in these kinds of rich learning experiences, and thus begin school unprepared for the educational program they encounter.

What we know about teaching and learning has evolved to provide a research-based alternative that can satisfy people on both sides of the debate: purposeful instruction that supports deep learning in a playful, engaging and fun way. We can offer academic preschool without a single flashcard or worksheet. But engaging in purposeful playful instruction with a group of children requires a great deal of skill – much more than either just letting kids play or giving them worksheets.

The question we should be asking is not either/or, but rather what will it take to bring about a substantial evolution in practice?

Historically, preschool was a few hours a day, a few days a week. The purpose for children was mostly socialization, not academic learning.

In the 1960s, policymakers and educators became concerned about the substantial gap of more than a year in school readiness between children living in poverty and their more affluent peers. Preschool learning became an issue of equity, and the federal government responded by creating Head Start to address the school-readiness gap.

Additional pressure on preschools to prepare children academically came from K–12 accountability policies — George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, morphing into Every Student Succeeds Act under Barack Obama.

Throughout these changes, the play vs. academics debate persisted, with proponents on both sides voicing strong opinions. Those who dismissed exclusively play-based learning cited concerns about the school readiness gap, and pointed to research showing that direct instruction proved most effective in promoting basic math and reading skills.

Resistance to an academic focus came from two central concerns: that the focus on academic learning would crowd out attention to children’s social-emotional development, and that stress over academic outcomes or performance would squelch children’s natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation to learn.

A new way forward

Consider the following activity that I saw unfold in a classroom of 4-year-olds:

The teacher maps a 6’ x 10’ grid on a shower curtain, which she spreads on the floor. She asks the children to take off one shoe and sort all of the shoes into six piles — sandals, slip-ons, shoes with laces, etc. Then, in the bottom row of the grid, they place one shoe from each pile in its own square, followed by the rest of the shoes from that category, one each in the squares above the first shoe. After the children count the number of shoes in each column, the teacher asks them what they notice, and the children discuss which columns are longer and shorter and which categories have the most and the fewest shoes. She follows up with questions: Are there any categories that have the same number of shoes? How many more sandals than slip-ons are there?

For the children, this is a game; they do not know they are experiencing instruction. The teacher, however, planned the lesson to help children develop particular math skills, including categorization, counting, graphing, and measurement.

In addition to math, the children are developing social skills — negotiating the shoe classification system, collaborating in creating the columns of shoes and learning to take turns to answer the teacher’s questions.

Young children need to be free to choose and explore on their own. But they also possess a natural curiosity and capacity to learn that, research shows, a skilled educator can harness.

They can learn a great deal about math, literacy and science. Carefully planned activities with clear learning goals and a developmental progression can nurture young children’s enthusiasm and motivation for learning.

Since research confirms that these well-crafted and playful learning experiences help children develop important and foundational skills and understandings, why aren’t they more common in preschool settings?

One reason is that few teachers are provided with the training and support they need to plan and execute these activities, especially in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Appropriate and effective learning experiences for young children require preschool teachers to master the material they are teaching and know how to plan activities that will help grow the skills of children with varying learning styles and levels of understanding.

Teachers also need to know how to provide an emotionally secure social context and support the development of self-regulation and social skills while promoting academic skills.

We need to move the conversation beyond play versus academic preschool, and focus on the kind of playful learning researchers have shown contributes to young children’s academic skills without undermining their motivation to learn.

To do this we will need to invest in training and supporting the teachers we expect to implement this demanding approach to teaching.

Deborah Stipek is the Judy Koch Professor of Education and former dean at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. She chairs Development and Research in Early Math Education, a network of scholars across the country who seek to advance opportunities for quality early math learning for all children. This commentary was originally published by The Hechinger Report.

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Comments (2)

A good starting place

Deborah - thank you sharing for your valuable insights, and for starting this very important conversation. As a former preschool teacher and current parent coach, I agree that we must think more creativity about the relationship between academic and play-based education for our little ones. Though, I caution all of us not to take one lesson plan at face value and assume that it's achieving the goals we have in mind.
The shoe-graphing project you described sounds like great fun, yet I wonder, can we jump to the conclusion that the children "do not know they are experiencing instruction"? Here are some questions that came to mind that I believe might help discerning educators such as ourselves assess the true merit of this lesson, and of a teacher's instruction in general:
- were those children forced to participate in the game, or was it optional?
- did the teacher recognize her children's interest in shoes and use this as a foundation for a math lesson?
- is this content and experience interesting and relevant to them?
- is counting and quantifying within the zone of proximal development for this specific group of kids?
- does the teacher or her assistant track the enthusiasm and comprehension displayed by the students to measure the value of her lessons?
- will the children have the chance to take over the roll of facilitator in games like this so as to feel more in charge of the content and rhythm of their learning?
- overall, how much of the day in this classroom is structured with teacher-led learning? how much is free form or student-led? is there a balance?

If we are to create curriculum for preschoolers that blends academics and play, benefitting all students, and respecting the need for kids to just be kids for those precious first few years of life, we must be incredibly selective about the lessons we provide. If we push a little too hard, and confuse our games with children's play, even the most well-intentioned teachers can loose sight of the real goal of preschool - to make learning in a group of peers fun.

the Finnish model

Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, visited Finnish schools (Finland is the highest performing nation in all of Europe). She reports that what Finland puts the highest value on is creativity in play. After every class there’s a break where kids can go out and play; it’s recess several times a day because they believe children need a break, they can’t spend all their time studying or learning, and the classes are very engaging (as described in this article) because the teachers want the kids to be self-motivated. Whereas here we use more of the “carrot and stick” method.