Family Matters

How Would Preschool for All Work: Is It All About Play or ABCs?

Finding the right balance of structured play for toddlers could be the key to making universal preschool work

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Not many would take issue with President Obama’s recent call to make high-quality preschool a reality for more U.S. kids. Even before Obama announced his intentions, both Democrats and Republicans had already lined up in their home states to push preschool programs, with more than a dozen states considering bolstering early education.

What’s bound to be more controversial is the nature of the still-to-be-created “universal preschool” program.  Should academics take front and center, with toddlers getting drills on the nuances of upper- and lower-case letters? Or should they more subtly absorb the concept that 2 + 2 makes 4 by building with blocks or playing sorting games?

Early-childhood experts say that play is the best way for little ones to learn. But, points out Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), comparing play-based preschool to a more academic approach is a “false dichotomy.” Good preschool teachers incorporate both, but in such a way that kids aren’t anchored to a desk. “When you have teachers who understand child development, you find that play is a major component of the day,” says Willer. “But play is very carefully organized so that teachers are very intentional.”

What may look like a play grocery store to the untrained eye can offer children an opportunity to draw up shopping lists and identify letters on the labels of cereal boxes. Teachers can lead the class in constructing graphs (a way to understand numbers) about who likes Raisin Bran and who prefers Cheerios and hone math skills as they classify products by size and shape. “Behind the play is a very careful plan on the part of the teacher in terms of specific curriculum goals,” says Willer.

The nitty-gritty of Obama’s plan has yet to be divulged, but the basics involve rolling out pre-kindergarten to families earning less than 200% of the poverty level — about $40,000 for a family of three — with the potential to expand the program to more families.

(MORE: When Do Babies Stop Being So Darned Cute? Age 4 1/2, Scientists Say)

While preschool is often perceived as a luxury for well-to-do parents, research shows it’s anything but. Sure, it gives weary parents a break from the rigors of child-rearing, but studies show that the early boost in learning skills also helps kids to perform better in elementary school and improves high school graduation rates. Less than half of U.S. 4-year-olds are currently registered in a pre-kindergarten program, however, and enrollment figures increase along with family income — 43% of children in families earning less than $20,000 attend preschool compared to 65% of those in families earning at least $75,000.

“It’s so important because the early years lay the foundation for future success in school,” says Helen Blank, director of child care and early education for the National Women’s Law Center. If all 4-year-olds, regardless of income, reap the benefits of a pre-K year, “at least when you come to the starting gate, you’re starting from the same place.”

Curriculum, of course, wouldn’t be the only concern in implementing a universal preschool program. Ensuring that each child receives the attention he needs, especially at that young age, is critical to laying a strong foundation for learning. Low child-to-staff ratios, as well as a manageable class size, should be priorities. And teachers have to be well-trained. Being a preschool teacher requires not just training in early childhood development, but an uncommon mix of creativity, patience and energy. “Being a good preschool teacher is not like being a good babysitter,” says Blank.

Nor is it about insisting that 4-year-olds painstakingly write their ABCs. “It’s very different than what we sometimes think of as a classroom with children sitting at desks filling out worksheets,” says Willer.

(MOREYour Brain On Sesame Street: Big Bird Helps Researchers See How the Brain Learns)

But while giving children as much help as they need to excel academically can certainly help students to learn faster, some experts question the value of the increasing emphasis on academics that universal preschool implies. Last month on Time’s Ideas blog, Erika Christakis worried that the academic focus in kindergarten will filter down to preschool.

Kindergarten classrooms today have been scrubbed of many of the essential ingredients including freedom for dramatic play, creativity, and conversation…Artwork has been replaced with word walls promising a “print-rich” environment that few five year-olds can, in reality, actually understand. Drill and kill worksheets are the norm. Many kids can’t handle the pressure: suspensions in the early years have increased dramatically since the 1970s, even trickling down to preschools where children are expected to be “ready” for a kindergarten curriculum that would have been more appropriate to a 1st or second grade classroom 20 years ago…

If states continue of this wrong-headed path, there’s no reason to believe President Obama’s laudable proposal won’t inflict the same high-stakes testing climate on even younger kids.

Instead of drill and kill, kids need help developing the “soft skills” of success — persevering even when tasks are challenging, being able to focus, finding creative ways to solve problems, getting along with others, dealing with anger and frustration. These are equally important in preparing kids for the rigors of kindergarten, which now looks nothing like it did a generation ago.

(MOREWhat Makes Some Preschools Better Than Others?)

My kindergartener, for example, writes weekly essays and recently started receiving homework assignments. When I was in kindergarten, learning to tie my own shoes was my crowning achievement.

“We’ve got it turned around,” says David Elkind, author of The Power of Play and a professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University. “We’ve gotten so focused on the academic part when we need to be focused on the social part.” Perhaps with more accessible preschool programs, toddlers would get a chance to focus on some of these social skills — sharing, cooperating, waiting their turn — that kindergartners seem to be too busy to learn.

45 comments
tara_in_canada
tara_in_canada

@KSzajner Play is the work of the child and the key to all learning. Too often we get in the way of healthy play and interrupt the learning.

saveWCK
saveWCK

%s %s check out %s a fed preK that %s closing despite %s call for more preK. Help us ask why!

preschoolfirst
preschoolfirst

Proof is in the play dough “%s: Universal %s: what's right combo of play & ABCs? %sPbw v%sand”

bundaalzena
bundaalzena

@rindes good read (•ˆ⌣ˆ​​​​•) Must be some ESP or something, I read it this morning (•ˆ⌣ˆ​​​​•)

oglemoore
oglemoore

%s %s Balance is the key. %s childhood teachers must be trained in play based learning. Don't lose their childhood.

ashleyfn
ashleyfn

@MegMcWelch @amharris34 No way! The best educators make curric embedded in interactive play (digital or otherwise). Gr8 ex in article!

Soldier
Soldier

Just one more very expensive way to make everyone else responsible for the choices women make.

ashleyfn
ashleyfn

Big potential for app content 2 follow suit! MT %s: Univ %s: The right combo of play & ABCs? %so%syed

MeganCarolan
MeganCarolan

@teachermeg Really enjoyed the piece, just wish Time hadn't gone for attention-grabbing headline by using exactly the problem phrase...

miss_kamdar
miss_kamdar

@teachermeg I love this article. I explain this to parents on a regular basis! play AND learning - play Is learning. Happy March Break!!

TeachPrayLuv
TeachPrayLuv

It's about both. “%s: How Would Preschool for All Work: Is It All About Play or ABCs? %sy0V v%sI%se%sool”

wenchypoo
wenchypoo

Why do we need pre-school at all?  I never had it--my parents and older brother worked with me until I learned everything I needed to know for kindergarten.  If more parents and families took responsibility for the child brought into this world and bothered to sit down and teach the simple basics (even reading at bedtime) for entrance into kindergarten, the government (or anybody else) wouldn't have to shell out for this farce.  Same for school lunches--my elementary school (back in the 60's and 70's) didn't have a working school cafeteria, so WE ALL brought our own lunches from home.  Nowadays, uncle Sam is expected to feed AND teach kids,...but look what's being taught and served!

Sandahl192
Sandahl192

Play is just as important to older children as it is with younger children.  We're robbing older children of play, which is how they make sense of the world.  It's all well and good to provide this in kindergarten, but suspend a third grader for playing soldier.

Recently there have been several reports of kids being suspended because they were playing make believe with gun imagery.(hand gestures and paper)  Kids used to be able to play cops and robbers in order to make sense of what is good and what is bad.  Now they're expected to absorb information the same way an adult would.  This will not work because a child has a child mind, not an adult mind.  Just because some of us are jaded, miserable, zombies doesn't mean we should be imposing our misery on children.  Let them live and be kids before life chews them up.

On a final note, a pop tart eaten into a shape that vaguely resembles a gun will not shoot a bullet.  It won't even shoot jam.  It's a pop tart.  It's sole purpose is to be eaten.  Does it really matter in what order the bites are taken?  Besides, kids play with their food.  Some adults play with their food.  Sheesh.

Extended note:  My post is not about guns, gun control, or anything regarding.  It's about allowing kids to make sense of their world as they've always had without adults overreacting about little Timmy and friends playing army.

gclobea
gclobea

@TIME @TIMEHealthland what's wrong? may have more people growing up smarter, maybe even more like current Pres, how dreadful!! Lol

DeborahMcNelis-BrainInsights
DeborahMcNelis-BrainInsights

Bonnie, 

Excellent post! It is not possible to agree with you more. If the goal is to have children succeeding in school we need to use all science and research demonstrates is best. The brain learns through play and direct interaction. It is essential that every adult realizes and supports this optimal way of learning for the benefit of all. And of course the preschool years are the time where we need to invest heavily, but in the most advantageous ways.

This is an article I certainly will be sharing with the audiences I reach.

rindes
rindes

@bundaalzena itu sih kebetulan. barusan liat ada temennya temen yg ngasih link itu. jadi weh ikutan baca

teachermeg
teachermeg

@MeganCarolan That does seem to be a problem. They seem to use it for attention getting, but it really only enforces the false dichotomy.

teachermeg
teachermeg

@miss_kamdar Yes, this article was well written. My "break" was last week. Grad school breaks weirdly early.

lanman
lanman

@DeborahMcNelis-BrainInsights 

This is another gift to teachers and unions from liberal politicians at the expense of hapless taxpayers who are stretched to the limit. It's misguided at best and dangerous at worst because we're robbing little children of a period in their lives when their daily routines should be creative play filled with fun. Instead government schools will indoctrinate them with liberal crap and turn them into little robots. In Scandinavian countries, children do not start school until age 6 or 7, and their children score among the highest in the world on the international PISA tests. Parents and concerned citizens should oppose this every step of the way.  

MeganCarolan
MeganCarolan

@teachermeg Yup! I know headlines are frequently not written by the article's author so I'm trying to not be upset. But still, it's silly.

miss_kamdar
miss_kamdar

@teachermeg thats neat. Its always nice to hit pause for a bit. Did you find it restful? What are you studying? As in interested in? :)

teachermeg
teachermeg

@miss_kamdar Totally. My classmates and profs are child development nerds too. It's kind of great.

miss_kamdar
miss_kamdar

@teachermeg thats when google scholar comes into play - and i get my fix. we are so lucky we live\/study what we're passionate about! :)

miss_kamdar
miss_kamdar

@teachermeg that sounds like heaven! lol! after a few years teaching, I'm missing those academic convos about teaching ...

teachermeg
teachermeg

@miss_kamdar Yeah. I tend to be an ECE nerd. My grad school is only focused on child development research\/application, so it's wonderful.

miss_kamdar
miss_kamdar

@teachermeg so crazy how important early years are - that sounds like a great idea. Twitter is too short when I get early years talking!

miss_kamdar
miss_kamdar

@teachermeg That is awesome. I find early years learning fascinating - early years learning - and training for teachers is so important

teachermeg
teachermeg

@miss_kamdar I'm getting my master's in child development and am hoping to combined it with my teaching\/policy experience to work w\/teachers