There’s a long, worn-out battle over whether preschool should be play-based or academics-based. The argument goes round and round with one side accusing the other of ignoring proper child development, or failing to prepare children for the future, or selling cute little puppies to make fashionable fur coats.
But in all this time spent vilifying the other side, it may have been overlooked that the two groups are actually arguing over a false dichotomy.
Play or learning. One or the other. Take it or leave it.
In my opinion, that’s where the real problem lies.
You see, academics are simply the subject matter. Play is a method for teaching. Learning is an outcome. They are not mutually exclusive.
We know from research that young children learn when they are allowed to be hands on, explore, play and construct knowledge. We also know that, developmentally, they need free social play to build vital social-emotional skills. So we need to preserve play in order for kids to learn.
But I also hold firm that in order to teach effectively through play, we teachers and parents must be aware, prepared, and intentional. We have to know the subject matter in order to effectively use the method. Play is a powerful teaching tool, but that doesn’t make it a simple teaching tool.
I teach teachers to Recognize-Emphasize-Maximize.
When you recognize what it is you’re trying to teach (the academics) you can emphasize it through your method (play opportunities) and maximize your outcome (learning).
By preparing the environment, fostering inquiry, responding to interests, and supporting curiosity, play-based teachers guide some powerful “academic” learning.
Here’s an example I’ve shared before:
You would (hopefully) never consider plopping a multiplication worksheet down in front of a preschooler, followed by an explanation of the basic principles and procedures of algebra. However, I know a phenomenal preschool teacher who recently gave her students a similar challenge, but in an authentic, playful way.
As this teacher sat down to snack with a group of her students, she noted that there were five people at the table and each person could have 3 crackers. She then asked the children at the table how many crackers she should put on the plate to serve. One child enthusiastically answered, “Three!” So the teacher placed three crackers on the plate and set it on the table. The children looked around at five hungry faces, trying to figure out where they went wrong. As the gears turned in their minds, one child suddenly shouted, “Fifteen! We need fifteen!” Not bad for a “non-academic” school.
Academics are the subject. Play is the method. Learning is the outcome.
Don’t ever let someone tell you that children can only have one or the other.