Washington - Standing at the creek’s edge, my son carefully drops his wooden boat into the water. He follows his classmates along the banks, guiding their boats with the attached knitted string, a small parade of colourful sails and bright rubber boots.
The children occasionally look behind them and smile proudly at their parents.
It’s Regatta Day at my son’s preschool, and the teachers, parents and children have hiked into the woods behind the school to launch the little boats. It’s a special day to celebrate the children’s weeks of hard work on this project. They’ve built the boats out of wood, knitted the boat’s string and painted and sewed the sails.
They’ve learned about creating and following patterns, using patience and self-regulation to persevere through mistakes and challenges, understanding numbers through counting and sequencing and asking for help when assistance is needed.
They’ve strengthened their control over their little hands and fingers, all without a work sheet, flashcard or vocabulary lesson at a tiny desk. If you ask my son what he did at school on any given day, he will say, “Play.” And he is right. He plays and does hands-on activities all day, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t engaged in serious learning.
I chose a school for him that understands that play - as Fred Rogers famously said - is “the work of childhood”. Children learn by running, building, imagining, climbing, storytelling, exploring, pretending and singing. It’s how they build the foundation for the academic skills that are so critical later on.
Increasingly, as a society, we are in danger of forgetting that the chance to engage in unscripted, playful learning is one of the primary things that young children deserve from adults, as early childhood educator Erika Christakis writes in The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups.
“Play is the foundational building block of human cognition, emotional health, and social behaviour,” Christakis wrote. “Play improves memory and helps children learn mathematical problems in their heads, take turns, regulate their impulses, and speak with greater complexity.”
Researchers have documented how kindergarten has become the new first grade (or even second), how recess has disappeared from too many American elementary schools, and how preschools are increasingly places where children are expected to spend large amounts of time “working” at their desks.
As reported in the New York Times, a recent study suggested that this more “rigorous” academic approach to children’s education might be better for kids. It found that at the end of kindergarten, kids who had experienced at least one year of academic preschool outperformed those who attended play-based preschools by an equivalent of two-and-a-half months of instruction.
This is hardly surprising and no parent should conclude from this single study that their child would be better off attending a “rigorously” academic preschool. If children are given direct instruction in literacy, numbers and maths concepts, they will do better on assessments than kids who haven’t been exposed to those skills yet. The study, however, only examined the short-term impact of a type of programme.
Other studies have found that early exposure to teacher-directed academic instruction can be harmful to kids’ long-term development. For instance, one study comparing students who had attended “academic” preschools to those who had attended “child-initiated”, play-based preschools over several years, concluded that “children’s long-term progress may be slowed by overly academic preschool experiences that introduce formalised learning experiences too early for most children’s developmental status.”
Another study in Tennessee found that kids who attended academic preschools were more prepared for kindergarten than their peers who hadn’t attended but, by second grade, those who hadn’t gone to these preschools were performing better and those who had, had negative attitudes towards school and worse work habits. Were they “burned out”?
Early childhood trainer and advocate Amanda Morgan compared the early work of play to the foundation of a house. Morgan wrote, “Learning foundations are built through play and experience. We can’t afford to skip that. A push-down curriculum isn’t helping kids to get ahead, it’s simply ignoring the critical role of the foundation.”
Preschoolers should not spend their days at desks, filling out work sheets and learning sight words. Childhood is too important for that.