Family Matters

In Preschool, What Matters More: Education or Play?

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It’s practically been relegated to superstar status in the annals of parenting lore: the Manhattan mom who sued her daughter’s $19,000-a-year preschool on grounds that the 4-year-old was not sufficiently prepared to tackle the entrance test for private kindergarten.

Earlier this month, Nicole Imprescia filed her lawsuit against the York Avenue Preschool, claiming that her daughter, Lucia, was not primed to take the intelligence test and was instead relegated to a mixed-age classroom where talk revolved around — oh, the horror — shapes and colors. As a result, Imprescia withdrew her daughter from the preschool. (More on Time.com: Perspective on the Parenting Debate: Rich Parents Don’t Matter?)

“The school proved to be not a school at all, but just one big playroom,” the suit stated.

The audacity of it all: imagine…kids playing! Anyone worth her parenting salt knows that a prestigious, hard-driving preschool lays the foundation for Rhodes scholarships. Or does it?

According to The New York Times:

The suit charges that preschool education is critical to a child’s success in life, quoting from various news articles. “It is no secret that getting a child into the Ivy League starts in nursery school,” says one. “Studies have shown entry into a good nursery school guarantees more income than entry into an average school,” says another.

But those studies don’t sound familiar to Kathleen Gallagher, a research scientist and director of the childcare program at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“There is no evidence-based research that I know of that ensures these privileged kids success later on,” she says. But there is research about poor, at-risk kids and early childhood education, some of it from FPG; those in high-quality play-based preschools do better in grade school and on standardized tests and have higher educational achievement as adults.

“These preschools that claim to get children into Ivy League schools…would they get in anyway?” she wonders. “It’s hard to tease this apart.”

What’s sad here is not so much Imprescia’s litigious bent, but the state of affairs in the Big Apple and elsewhere that has led to early childhood becoming steeped in the rigors of academia rather than the joys of dressing up and building block castles. (More on Time.com: “Mompetition”: Why You Just Can’t Make Mom Friends)

“Play is the best context in which children learn,” say Gallagher.

But the Times describes “costly consultants and test preparation materials” for preschoolers, many of whom attend programs that dangle promises of test scores “high enough to catch the attention of elite private schools.”

I have a preschooler of my own who has been tasked with a bit of quiet time as I write this. She’s in the room next to me, so I can hear her “reading” We’re Going on a Bear Hunt to her stuffed dog, Cooper. Her preschool is proudly play-based. On Friday, when I dropped in and stayed for a while, they were vigorously mashing potatoes for snack and creating spin art. The kids dance, they sing, they read books and act out stories.

When my oldest started preschool six years ago, I distinctly remember asking the preschool director what I could expect my son to learn. She gently but firmly set me straight: He will learn about self-control, taking turns and following instructions, about make-believe and making friends and making messes. He will not be drilled on his multiplication tables or pushed to learn to read. Um, okay, I said. What did I, a first-time parent, know anyway?

I’ve since become a disciple of the power of play, which just happens to be the title of a 2007 book by David Elkind, professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University. (More on Time.com: Young Kids Increasingly Use the Internet Regularly)

Elkind makes the case that so-called academic preschools that formally teach young children the three R’s aren’t doing children — or their parents — any favors.

“It’s a parent issue, not a child issue,” says Elkind. “There’s a lot of peer pressure among parents. Parents feel they’re depriving their children unless they are putting them in a high-pressure environment.”

Much of Europe has shifted gears, from academics in early childhood education to play. In Russia and Germany and Scandinavia, reading is not introduced until age 6 or 7. Even in academic powerhouses such as China and South Korea, where The Power of Play has been translated into the local tongue, there is budding recognition that play fosters creativity and curiosity.

In fact, in the book Academic Instruction in Early Childhood: Challenge or Pressure?, the authors cite research showing that children who attend academic preschools are more anxious and have lower self-esteem. When followed up down the road, they didn’t perform any better academically than kids in play-based preschools.

And they certainly didn’t have as much fun.

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