Over the past few decades, American early childhood education has experienced a major pedagogical division between academic and play-based learning. As public kindergartens have increasingly become the new first grade, parents and teachers have grown understandably concerned about about the role and importance of preschool in “school-readiness”. The resulting trend has created a push for earlier academics.
Education reforms beginning in the 1980s and memorialized in programs like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core State Standards, have led to increased academic requirements for kindergarteners. The resulting ripple effects have dramatically impacted the early childhood education landscape. As preschool classrooms are becoming more academic, time spent on “seatwork” and direct academic instruction comes at the expense of limited opportunities for unstructured free play.
Why does this matter?
Teachers and pediatric occupational therapists are reporting a rise in the number of school-age children exhibiting sensory, motor, and cognitive deficits- a phenomena that has been attributed to the decline in early childhood play. Research has shown that children who have not been given adequate opportunities to move and play at an early age are more likely to have poor coordination, difficulty paying attention, trouble regulating their emotions, impaired problem-solving abilities, and difficulties in social interactions. Studies have also found that too many structured activities (and not enough time for free-play) may hinder the development of children’s executive functioning. Ironically, academic skills taught using direct instructional methods are often used as a measure of “school readiness,” despite evidence that these instructional methods are developmentally inappropriate in early childhood settings since they favor shallow mimicry and recall behaviors rather than development of deeper-level cognitive thinking skills. Direct instruction has been found to limit young children’s learning in more ways than one. An MIT study linked direct instruction to reduced curiosity and creativity. Researchers observed that children who received direct instruction were less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw new conclusions.
While children can be taught to read before the age of 7, we know that earlier isn’t always better. The first 7 years of life, traditionally referred to as the “pre-academic period,” is a crucial period of development for young children. During this time, children require a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences on a daily basis for optimal development. A recent evaluation of Tennessee's publicly funded preschool system found that while children who attended preschool demonstrated higher levels of academic “school readiness” skills upon entry into kindergarten as compared to their non-preschool-attending peers, these same children had deteriorating attitudes about school by the time they had entered first grade, and lowered academic performance by the time they had entered second grade. Another study with similar findings compared two groups of children in New Zealand, who began formal literacy instruction at the ages of five and seven, respectively. Researchers found no significant difference in reading ability among the two groups by the time the children were eleven years old, however, the children who started literacy instruction earlier had developed a less positive attitude toward reading and had worse text comprehension than the children who had started literacy instruction later.
So, how do we best prepare young children for school, and for life? The answer is simple.
Let them play.
Play is the universal language of childhood. It crosses all cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. It is essential to children’s development and is the foundation for all later learning. Evolutionary psychologists have traced the play impulse to a deep and primitive part of the brain, suggesting it may have been vital to the survival of our species and many others. Play is suspected to be the mechanism that allowed animals to learn to live in social groups and to navigate complex hierarchies of social situations. Play also represents full mind/body integration and has been described as the thread that stitches individuals into the social fabric that is the staging ground for their lives. Play is the means through which children take in new information about their world and gain an understanding of what it means to be human.
Parents can be rest assured knowing that their preschooler’s ability or inability to recite their ABC’s will not determine their future academic success- but opportunities to engage in free and unstructured play will. Feed your child’s innate sense of wonder and curiosity. Allow them be bored. Let them play with sticks and stomp through the mud. Set them up for a lifelong love of learning and foundation for future academic success by allowing them to develop naturally and on their own timeline. The next time you feel tempted to pull out those flashcards, consider a walk to the park instead.
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