As I began writing this post, it became apparent that I was writing a sermon in two parts. (Brevity has never really been my strong suit.) Don’t worry, you don’t need to change into your Sunday best, your pajamas are just fine (you know who you are). Just get comfortable, I’ve got a lot on my mind.
If you want to get preschool teachers all riled up, talk about “push-down curriculum” (pushing academic standards from one grade down to the next- pushing fluent reading skills from first grade to kindergarten, and now to preschool, for example). I read this article the other day, and it really got me thinking about academics and preschoolers.
High Jump or Marathon
First, the obvious. The article’s examples of pushed down academic curriculum are simply not developmentally appropriate. Mandating that children will begin reading earlier or doing simple math at younger ages is like passing a law that all flowers must now bloom in February. Just because you say it, doesn’t make it realistic! You can’t mandate brain development! These broad, one-size-fits-all standards, just don’t work at these young ages. You can’t in good conscience say that all kindergarteners will read at the same level on May 3rd, regardless of their actual ages. Just consider a group of kindergarteners. Their ages range at least one full year. For a kindergartener entering at four years old, that means her peers could be 25% older than she is. Because the rate of growth and development at this age is so rapid, a little bit of time can make a huge difference! 25% more time for experience, development, and maturation is going to create a lot of disparity! Because of that disparity, setting explicit expectations of learning outcomes for a large group of children to achieve simultaneously is certainly going to cause many to miss the mark.
We need to change our mindsets about assessing education in these early years. (Or perhaps I should say we need to help educate others in order to change their mindsets.) Let me give you an example to illustrate. In high school, I was on the track team, and my favorite event was high jump. Well, in high jump, the bar is set at certain heights, resting, in fact, on the standards. At each height, the jumpers have three attempts to clear the bar, without knocking it off of the standards. If you succeed, congratulations. If not, you’re done. The rest of the field goes on without you. (I’m certainly not saying anything disparaging about high jump, I quite enjoyed it. I’m just trying to illustrate a point here. Stick with me.) Now, I also ran a marathon a couple of years back. The course was long and, at times, arduous. I certainly am not an elite runner. As the winner crossed the finish line I was probably agonizing my way up a long hill. Nonetheless, when I crossed the finish line, there were still people lining the finish, cheering. And they were still cheering on runners for two hours or so behind me. Those crowds knew that trekking that 26.2 mile course was an accomplishment, and that each runner had worked hard and completed it as quickly as they were capable of doing so.
In the early years, we need broad developmental guides, showing that a course is being followed and appropriate progress is being made, cheering on each child at an individualized pace, as in the marathon. Young children don’t need a mandated bar set to show whether or not a child has mastered the somewhat arbitrarily set standards at the same time as his peers, and oh, if not, the field moves on (to first grade) without you.
In addition to the danger of setting inappropriate expectations, pushed down curriculum tends to push out important facets of a preschool education. Important social skills that help children function successfully in a group, creativity that promotes flexibility of thinking and a value of ingenuity, as well as self-help skills that foster autonomy, all take a back seat when inordinate amounts of time have to be spent sitting at a table with a tutor, or drilling through flashcards.
I have to laugh at the idea of forgoing social experiences, exploration, and natural inquiry in the name of “kindergarten readiness”. One of the most academically prepared students I ever taught was one of the least “ready” to be successful in school. She could read well-above her grade level, but had great difficulty getting along with her peers and acted impulsively and emotionally. She had little internal motivation and struggled to stay on-task. In my opinion, social skills are more closely equated with “kindergarten readiness” than are academic skills. Give me a child who can get along with others, listen to and follow directions, and who loves learning, and I really don’t care what academic skills they can check off on a list, that child will do just fine.
And now, Part 2 of the sermon. Feel free to sing a rousing rest hymn if you need a break before reading on….
Playing or Learning: A False Dichotomy
With the obvious concerns about push down curriculum established, I have to question the article’s dichotomy between academics and play. It’s an either/or scenario argued constantly in preschool circles. As the article juxtaposes the two, you have a burnt-out five year old sitting at the table writing essays and racing through flash cards with a tutor, versus the nostalgic description of the preschools we all went to, where we “played, snacked, and napped”. Learning and play do not have to be mutually exclusive. I see learning as an outcome, and play as a method. The problem with the described five year old wasn’t what she was learning, it was how she was learning. I am not about to say that children should not learn a certain skill in preschool just because it’s – gasp- academic. Some children can learn advanced skills at young ages. If they were ready and the opportunity presented itself (often in the form of their own questions), I wouldn’t pass that up. But I will object to academics being taught in an inappropriate way (sitting at a table for two hours of instruction, for example).
Just as Judith Schickendanz describes in her book, Much More than the ABCs, we have to stop shouting that children shouldn’t learn to read in preschool for example, and realize that they are learning to read in preschool, every time they “write” a letter at the post office in the dramatic play area, or when they help generate new rhymes for a silly song in large group, or when they share a book during small group. Children can learn all kinds of academic concepts while playing and having fun. Sometimes this learning is incidental, sometimes it comes as result of a carefully prepared room, and almost always it comes as a teacher knows how to engage children in interesting conversations and present interesting materials for children to use to learn through play. And I don’t just mean learn to get along and be nice (though I’ve already argued the value of that) I mean they learn academic concepts, and their precursors, as they play. Children learn to sort and count, they learn and experiment with new words and ideas, they begin to recognize and point out letters, and so much more, all while they play in a developmentally appropriate environment.
To take an example from the article, writing an essay to improve penmanship is laborious at any age, but developmentally inappropriate at five. Children this age struggle with penmanship as much or even more so because they lack the adequate muscle strength and control as they do because they’re learning what the letters should look like. A child can engage in any number of fun fine motor activities (I loved these I found at another site recently) and build the necessary strength and control that are needed for good penmanship. And you won’t have to chain them to the table to get them to do it. They actually enjoy it.
Likewise, I happen to know quite a few preschoolers who went to kindergarten knowing how to read, who didn’t have tutors or expensive reading packages. They were surrounded by a culture of literacy and had minds that were ready for the task. (I’ve also seen first graders who couldn’t quite read, in fact, a standardized test would show they did not adequately “clear the bar”, but who demonstrated skills that showed they were on the course, and making progress. And within months, they were reading.)
So the discussion shouldn’t really be play vs academics, it should be about inviting children to learn appropriate academic concepts, at their own pace through play. That requires knowledgeable teachers (parents included) that can create and take advantage of teachable moments, who can prepare inviting, playful educational environments, and who know the children they teach, as well as child development, well enough to recognize what is appropriate for their children, not what a commercial, committee, or concerned citizen says their children should be doing. “Academic” is not a bad word, and “play” is not its antithesis. Children need to learn to play and they need to play to learn.
Can I get an amen?
Top photo by Ayla87.