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Should preschools teach all work and no play?

Here's a dilemma for parents of 3- or 4-year-olds: When it comes to selecting a preschool, do you go for the one that calls itself an “academic” preschool or do you enroll your child in the fun place?
Girls Drawing in a Row
Children who are subjected to overly academic environments at a young age are less likely to be creative learners and thinkers, some experts believe.© Don Hammond/Design Pics/Corbis
/ Source: contributor

When it comes to selecting a preschool, parents of 3- and 4-year-olds face a dilemma: do you go for the one that calls itself an “academic” preschool or do you enroll your child in the fun place?

Danielle Senffner, a mother of two in Thousand Oaks, Calif., says the ongoing debate about the value of play-based preschools versus academic preschools is common coffee talk among parents in her suburban community. “Most parents are still confused about which type of preschool is best,” says Senffner.

She has read all the books touting the benefits of play and has even taken early childhood development classes, yet that didn’t squelch the misgivings in her family that their first preschool — a program based on child-initiated free play — was all their son needed. “When my husband came to observe, his perception was, ‘Oh, it’s so much fun, but they’re not learning anything. There’s no guidance,’” she recalls.

So the Senffners decided to supplement their son’s playful preschool by sending him two days a week to another school at a nearby Lutheran church that touts itself as a more academic preschool.

“We had other reasons for doing this too — at the second preschool they add a little religion in, which is an important thing on my husband’s side of the family,” she says. But the biggest reason, Senffner admits, was to make sure their son, now 5, was accustomed to a scheduled, academic environment.

Academics vs. play
While once the statement would’ve sounded absurd, being “academically prepared” for kindergarten is now a new and real parental concern, says Larry Schweinhart, president of High/Scope, a nonprofit educational research foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich.

“Parents have reason to be concerned about this because of the ‘push down’ we’ve experienced,” he says. “Kindergartners are now expected to learn what first-graders once learned. It’s something we’ve been talking about for years, but it’s just gotten worse.”

Many school administrators and educators have decided kids need to learn more, and earlier, to meet achievement targets set up by programs such as No Child Left Behind.

But is choosing academic programs for 3- and 4-year-olds a real route to success in kindergarten and beyond?

Not according to David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University and author of “ThePower of Play.”

“It’s absolutely the wrong move,” says Elkind. He notes that while a few children might be extraordinary, the vast majority of human brains aren’t developed enough to truly learn reading or math concepts until they’ve reached the age of reason (typically at age 5 or 6), when they can understand “interval units,” a series of relationships in numbers and letters.

“When we try to teach children skills that require interval units before this age of reason, we run the risk of killing the child’s motivation for learning, for schooling and for respecting teachers,” says Elkind.

Raising independent thinkers
Rebecca Marcon, a developmental psychologist and education researcher at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, agrees. In 1999, Marcon published a study in the journal Developmental Psychology that looked at 721 4-year-olds selected from three different preschool models: play based, academic (adult directed) and middle of the road (programs that did not follow either philosophy). Marcon followed the children’s language, self-help, social, motor and adaptive development along with basic skills.

“What we found in our research then and in ongoing studies is that children who were in a [play-based] preschool program showed stronger academic performance in all subject areas measured compared to children who had been in more academically focused or more middle-of-the-road programs,” says Marcon.

According to Marcon and other researchers, children who are subjected to overly academic environments early on have more behavior problems later and are less likely to be enthusiastic, creative learners and thinkers.

“You will frequently get short-term gains with a highly academic approach (in preschool), but they come with long-term consequences,” says Marcon. “A lot of early childhood studies only follow children to third grade. But when you take it into fourth grade and beyond that’s where you see the big difference. That’s when children have to be more independent and think.”

Learning should be fun
Deborah Stipek, dean of the school of education at Stanford University, calls academic preschools “drill and kills.” “I’ve gone into preschools and listened to children recite the alphabet or count to 100, for example. And people might say, ‘Oh, what a great school!’ because the children recite this information. But if you ask (the kids), ‘If you have three cookies and I give you another one, how many do you have?’ they wouldn’t know.”

However, Stipek doesn’t advocate for decidedly nonacademic environments either. “There are schools that are completely unplanned and unstructured, and I think we’re missing an opportunity there also,” she says. “I’m not entirely for free play, and I’m not for a lot of time spent on worksheets, counting to 10 or reciting the alphabet either. I’m supportive of learning activities that are intentional and planned, but fun and engaging for kids.”

Play versus academics is a false dichotomy, she says. “The idea is that at the preschool age, all learning should be fun. Adults should be intentional about the teaching, but it should be embedded in everyday life and fun activities.”

While Schweinhart agrees, he says the key to preschool sanity is kindergarten sanity. “I’d like to be hopeful, but as long as the kindergarten curriculum remains as it’s become, academic preschools will remain.”

When Senffner’s daughter turns 3, she’ll follow in the footsteps of her older brother and attend both types of preschools. “I think the child-initiated programs are more progressive. They teach autonomy and make the children worldwise,” says Senffner. “But parents also want to know, ‘What did my child learn today?’ You want to feel as though you’re preparing your child adequately.”

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.