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.

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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.

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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.

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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.