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Play-Based Education or Drills?

When it came time to enroll my three-year-old daughter, Clara, in preschool, I wasn’t one of those parents who judged programs by their Harvard-admission rates. Pregnant and distracted, I piggybacked onto the research done by my friend and neighbor Laura, who had done all the legwork for her son Brian. The place she chose was a five-minute drive from my house, offered a full-day, part-time option (perfect for my work-from-home schedule), and was affiliated with a local community college’s early-childhood education program. I scheduled a visit.

The room looked exactly as I imagined it would, from the brightly-colored circle time rug to the dress-up closet to the pint-sized potties. And I liked what I heard about the school’s play-based curriculum. Teachers led the children in certain activities, the director told me, but for the most part the kids were allowed to follow their interests. (Perhaps it brought back distant memories of the free-to-be-you-and-me nursery school co-op my mom had sent me to in the ’70s.) I happily made out my deposit check.

Then, as the school year progressed, I began to have second thoughts. I heard about kids from other preschools coming home with worksheets to practice the alphabet. My daughter brought home a variety of mixed-media artworks, but nothing to show she was learning anything other than a fondness for glitter glue. When I asked one of the teachers about working with Clara on writing, I was told that they’d do so only if she specifically requested it.

Instantly, I was consumed by the irrational panic that bubbles up whenever we feel like we’ve failed our children. At this rate, I thought, Clara would never be reading by kindergarten. She was already behind, and she might never catch up.

Preschool-achievement anxiety has become so pervasive that it’s even affecting relatively laid-back moms like me. Teachers and early-childhood education experts say more and more educated, affluent parents are considering academic rigor when they pick a preschool. As top colleges have become more competitive, the pressure to excel has trickled down from high schools to homework-intensive elementary schools. Now, those demands are making their way to preschool.

What used to be a time to focus on social rather than academic readiness has become yet another cog in the educational machine. Tutoring companies even offer programs for the younger set: Sylvan Learning Centers have a pre-K reading enrichment program for four-and-a-half to five-year-olds, and Kuman Math and Reading Centers have a “junior” track that accepts children as young as three.

All this would be fine if it meant we were raising smarter, more well-adjusted children who thrive in school. But it doesn’t. A wide range of research shows that kids do best – not just in kindergarten, but throughout the later grades – when they’re allowed to learn in age-appropriate ways. But many parents don’t understand what that means. If they don’t see worksheets and flashcards, they get scared.

Lynne Hollingsworth, director of the Kensington Nursery School near Berkeley, Calif., feels the pressure first-hand. “It was never as bad as it is now,” she says. “Parents are freaking out. I tell them we teach life skills – integrity, patience – but when I explain myself I sound defensive.” She even gets together regularly with fellow preschool directors to vent: “It’s our version of a stitch ‘n bitch.”

In some cases, criticism even comes from fellow educators. When the director of a private elementary school recently visited Hollingsworth’s school, she commented, “I don’t see any learning going on here. All they do is play.”

Hollingsworth pointed out that she wove math throughout the day’s activities, from tracking days on the calendar to counting crackers and carrot sticks during snack time. “That’s not math,” the private-school teacher sniffed. “I wanted to say, ‘Time out for you,’” Hollingsworth laughs.

“This is an era of accountability, and parents are rightfully nervous,” says Jerlean Daniel, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “A high quality program can include what people think of as academics in a playful way. There’s a real richness when you use a play-based approach.”

Take literacy. Around the time I was worrying about Clara’s inability to write lowercase letters, she came home with a story that she had dictated to one of her teachers. I thought the project was nothing more than a way to encourage imaginative thinking. What I didn’t understand until much later was that this exercise was a crucial step in preparing Clara to read.

“It’s very important for young children to understand that what they say can be written down,” Daniel explains. “Think of what it means from a child’s viewpoint: An adult is paying attention, writing down what I say. What I think and say is important. That’s a powerful incentive for learning.”

A purely loosey-goosey approach doesn’t work either.

Or consider the play kitchen, where I feared Clara was merely re-enacting the domestic drudgery generations of women have endured. “When children are taking on roles, planning scenarios, changing the script – all that requires a high degree of self-regulation,” says Daniel. “Dramatic play gives all kinds of opportunities for problem solving and decision making.”

Those skills go beyond any one academic subject; they affect how a child learns from then on. A four-year-old who is trained to sit and practice specific drills may well be reading by kindergarten, and her math scores may be ahead of the curve in second or third grade. But studies have shown that children who haven’t had to make their own decisions – using that all-important self-regulation – have a harder time in later grades, when independent thinking becomes more critical.

“Children with good social skills know how to get what they need from a teacher or their classmates,” says Daniel. “They know how to make their way in a group setting. They’ve had practice negotiating. In any group situation, children who have self-regulation do better.”

Research has also shown that a purely loosey-goosey approach doesn’t work either. An influential study by Greg Duncan of Northwestern University found that math skills were the single most important factor predicting which preschoolers would go on to do well academically. Widely publicized under headlines such as “Preschool Math Skills Predict Success,” the study sent a whole new round of parents reaching for the flashcards.

So what works – math drills or make-believe? Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, is familiar with pretty much every study of three-to-five-year-old learning, and he says the key is to adapt teaching to the way young kids’ brains operate. A preschool classroom shouldn’t look like everyone’s at recess all day, but it’s no place for worksheets, either.

“Instruction matters,” he says. “Children learn through interactions with each other, but the teachers should be seriously engaged in how that happens. Everything should be intentional and planned, with lots of small groups and individual attention.”

Consider the all-important “math skills” that make over-achieving parents wonder if they should break out the multiplication tables. Buried in the small print of the Duncan study were the specific concepts preschoolers should know before starting elementary school: how to identify numbers and put them in order. That’s it. Simple concepts that can be reinforced when a teacher prompts children for prices when playing grocery store, or asks for help measuring ingredients while baking a pretend cake.

Personally, Barnett believes preschools that are teacher-driven, rather than child-responsive, plant a seed that ultimately leads to academic disengagement: “You can’t maintain that kind of model without harsh discipline, and it sends a constant message to kids that the external world is not a nice place. It’s not concerned with yourself and your interests.”

What works – math drills or make-believe?

But a completely child-led approach doesn’t do kids any favors, either. Parents who think the main goal of preschool is to raise self-esteem aren’t setting their kids up as future valedictorians. “Research shows that kids who succeed aren’t those with high self-esteem,” says Barnett. A far more critical trait is self-efficacy: the belief that you can change your environment. “The kids who do well are those who believe that hard work pays off,” he says. “If they encounter problems, they know they can do something about it.”

To find a preschool that strikes the right balance, Barnett suggests studying a wall of children’s artwork. “If all the bunnies look the same, you don’t want to go there, because it’s too teacher-driven. You want to be able to recognize which one might be your child’s.” At the other extreme, it’s a bad sign if none of the pictures look like bunnies: “That means there’s no teaching going on.”

Many preschools – especially the ones favored by those stressed-out, educated parents – are doing exactly what they’re supposed to, but we’re too oblivious or clueless to understand. I see now that Clara’s preschool teachers encouraged pre-literacy and math skills in all kinds of creative ways – ways that, to me, looked like one big playtime. She did indeed enter kindergarten without being able to read, but now, two years later, she’s sitting in bed at night perusing masterpieces like The Tiara Club.

Preschool gave her both the freedom to follow her interests and a solid foundation for future learning. Maybe most importantly, it taught her school can be fun. Imagine that.

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