Updated date:

8 Ways That Preschools Ignore Research in Early Childhood Education

Ms. Meyers is a long-time preschool and kindergarten teacher who writes about issues in early childhood education and advocates for play.

Teaching academics at preschool does not result in smarter kids.

Teaching academics at preschool does not result in smarter kids.

Reality and Research Collide at Preschool

When college students graduate from the sheltered idealism of their campuses and enter the pragmatic, money-driven world of employment, they're often jolted by the disparity between the two. They quickly discover what they've learned in their classes, what their professors drilled into their heads, and what they studied for their exams don't hold much weight in the real world. Profits now mean more than philosophy and outdoing the competition trumps doing what's right. Nowhere is the difference between what's taught at college and what's applied in the real world more dramatically pronounced than early childhood education.

In this career field, college students learn one thing in their classes and must do nearly the opposite when they get hired at a preschool. Not only are they poorly compensated, they must forsake what they know is best for young children and do what's demanded of them by their bosses. It's often an untenable situation, leading to an extremely high turnover rate in the profession.

A Quality Preschool Is Not Academic

Today, parents of preschoolers are getting a boat-load of misinformation about what constitutes good practices in early childhood education. Many moms and dads are now convinced that the main goal of preschool is to prepare kids academically for kindergarten: reciting the alphabet, counting to 100, studying the calendar, sitting still for stories, and writing their names. They don't realize that mastering these narrow skills doesn't align with the latest findings in neuroscience. They don't understand that many preschools in the United States are doing the opposite of what the research dictates.

1. Early Academics Don't Make Smarter Kids

Some preschool owners misrepresent the latest findings in brain research to stay competitive and turn a profit. For example, when research revealed that the brains of young children rapidly develop connections called synapses during the first three to four years of life, some opportunistic owners saw it as a marketing tool. They began describing their preschools with words and phrases such as: enriched, stimulating, academically rigorous, brain enhancing, guided by the latest in neuroscience, and the ideal place to maximize your youngster's learning potential.

They convinced unwitting moms and dads that a superior preschool is one that embraces early academics. They touted workbooks, flashcards, computers, STEM lessons, and teacher-directed learning. They promised that these would give kids a competitive edge, turning them into little geniuses and guaranteeing a future with early admissions to MIT and lucrative careers in Silicone Valley.

2. Kids Learn Most From Exploring

Patricia Wolfe sets the record straight about early learning and neuroscience in Brain Matters: Translating Research Into Classroom Practice. This brilliant book helped me build a developmentally appropriate curriculum for my students with a research-based explanation for why play was the nucleus, not academics. Therefore, I highly recommend it to all moms and dads, but especially those who are convinced that earlier is better when it comes to structured learning.

Correcting a common misconception, Wolfe explains that the more synapses children make during their early years doesn't mean that they'll become Einsteins. That's because youngsters prune synapses as they grow, trimming away the ones they don't need.

While some preschools entice parents by promising an enriched learning environment, Wolfe assures them that young children don't need super stimulating places to reach their potential. In fact, she says that the opposite is true based on the latest research. She writes “excessive use of flash cards, workbooks, language tapes, and 'educational' computer games is not only inappropriate, these games deprive children of the natural interaction with their world so important to development...there is no proof extra stimulation is necessary for cognitive or social growth.”

According to the latest brain research, children benefit far more from exploring their surroundings than sitting down and writing in workbooks.

According to the latest brain research, children benefit far more from exploring their surroundings than sitting down and writing in workbooks.

3. The Best Learning Springs From Curiosity

As Wolfe points out, children have all they need to learn within themselves: an innate curiosity, a robust imagination, and an intense desire to explore their surroundings. They don't need teachers to fill them up with knowledge.They don't need the latest technology, overpriced STEM sets, or elaborate phonics programs. What they do need are plenty of opportunities to interact with one another, ample time to investigate their environment (both indoors and out), and warm, loving teachers to support and guide them.

4. Early Academics Limit Learning

Sadly, play at preschool in the United States has became synonymous with wasted time. Too many uninformed moms and dads see it as frivolous and demand “real learning" with workbooks, computers, circle time, science projects, handwriting lessons, and alphabet activities. Moreover, they demand results with youngsters reciting the days of the week, recognizing patterns, tying their shoes, counting to 100, and knowing their letter sounds. They're interested in these narrow skills because they want their youngsters academically prepared for kindergarten. In the process, however, the broader and far more important skills that prepare them for life get minimized.

5. Big Picture Skills Matter Most

Most preschool owners are well aware of the research that supports play as the foundation for all learning. However, some buckle under to the demand for early academics that comes from politicians, elementary school administrators, and parents. As a result, teachers no longer emphasize the big picture skills that were once the cornerstone of early childhood education: getting along with others, working together as a team, solving problems, exploring new materials, dealing with conflict, developing curiosity, being persistent, and experiencing failure and frustration.

To stay in business and attract new clients, many preschool owners now offer academic activities that are developmentally inappropriate. Emphasizing these narrow skills has a long term negative impact on kids and on society as a whole. It limits time for far more consequential activities such as exploring, playing, and pretending. That, in turn, minimizes what matters most for our future workers, leaders, and citizens: critical thinking skills, people skills, creativity, curiosity, and initiative.

6. Academics Can Turn Off Kids To Learning

In Taking Back Childhood (a book I frequently recommend to parents who are overly impressed by early academics), Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige makes the case for play at preschool. She decries our country's obsession with testing young children, assessing them, lecturing them, filling them with information, and pressuring them to learn too much too soon. She celebrates play as the way youngsters express their creativity, solve their problems, soothe their souls, and build friendships.

While visiting preschools around the country, Carlsson-Paige said her heart broke when seeing far too many kids who were already disenchanted with school and turned off to learning. Through her decades-long career in early childhood education, she knows that youngsters learn best through purposeful experiences, plenty of time for play and exploration, and fun interactions with both peers and adults. She knows that early academics can come at a high price and says, "When children are taught things that they're not ready to learn, it can create feelings in them of confusion, anxiety, and inadequacy."

Parents want their kids to have pre-reading skills, but few realize that play is the best way to accomplish that.

Parents want their kids to have pre-reading skills, but few realize that play is the best way to accomplish that.

7. Play Is the Foundation of Learning

The United States is uniquely obsessed with the idea that earlier is better in preschool education. Other countries are far more mindful about celebrating each stage of a youngster's development. They have no desire for kids to rush through them, knowing how detrimental it is to their long-term mental and emotional well-being.

In Nova Scotia, Canada, for example, they recently revealed a new early learning framework with play as its centerpiece. In the document, play is described in the loftiest of terms: “one of the highest achievements of the human species...fostering capacities such as investigating, asking questions, creativity, solving problems and thinking critically... vital to building a wide range of competencies such as language development, self regulation, and conflict resolution.”

8. Pretending Promotes Literacy

Research shows that pretend play is not wasted time at all but vital for building literacy skills. A youngster who develops a robust vocabulary and strong communication skills at preschool is more likely to become a competent reader, writer, and speaker at elementary school. Talking, listening, and interacting with peers through pretend play is the most effective ways to achieve this goal.

Preschools need multiple areas for imaginative play: a kitchen where kids pretend to be chefs, a veterinary clinic where they treat sick animals, a landscaping business where they plant trees, bury bulbs, and arrange rocks. These create a rich interactive environment where language flourishes. As children ask each other questions, discuss and debate, and learn the importance of nonverbal cues, they become powerfully literate in a fun and age-appropriate way.

A professor discusses how play promotes reading, writing, and speaking.

Earlier Is Not Better

In Building the Reading Brain, co-authors Patricia Wolfe and Pamela Nevills warn against what has now become a reality: the so-called pushed down curriculum. This refers to what's happening in education today where what was once taught in first grade is now taught in kindergarten and what was once taught in kindergarten is now taught in preschool and so on.

They write that today's earlier is better approach is “based on a lack of understanding of the reading process, of children's brain development, and of the types of activities that are best suited for different ages.” They argue that linguistic awareness is best fostered in an organic way at preschool and home by reading poems, stories, and nursery rhymes, singing songs, listening to children's music, doing cooking and art projects, and having plenty of time for pretend play, exploration, and social interaction.

Contrary to popular belief, children's brains shouldn't be overloaded with information during the first five years of life. The practice of doing so at America's preschools represents a huge distortion of the research. It doesn't make kids any smarter and can turn them off to learning at a time when they should be fired up about it..

© 2018 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on June 10, 2018:

Thanks for your kind words, Dora. Sometimes the same thing is said over and over and begins to be accepted as fact. This is the case with teaching reading in preschool and kindergarten. Too many people see it as progress when it's really a big step backward. Parents love to brag about having an early reader but, in the long run, it means nothing.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on June 09, 2018:

You've given us much to think about. The educators and parents have to cooperate in the interest of the children; and their approach must be honest and child-centered for their all-round development. Thanks for bringing these errors to our attention.

McKenna Meyers (author) on June 08, 2018:

Thanks for your kind words, RTalloni. I had just gotten fed up with the wave of anti-intellectualism, anti-research, and anti-professionals in our country, especially in regards to early childhood education. Too many parents are wildly impressed by all their children are learning in preschool and kindergarten as though it will translate into future academic and career success when it won't . Countries like Canada were heading down the wrong track of academic rigor in preschool as well but turned it around. Hopefully, we'll do the same. In the meantime, more children are suffering from depression and anxiety and a lack of play seems to be a major factor.

RTalloni on June 08, 2018:

VIva "taking back childhood"! Bravo "the most powerful learning"! Good for you for speaking up on behalf of little ones! What has happened to so many children via the so-called early education movement is sad business. Home education is mocked, but it can be a great option for parents/grandparents who want to break out of the "meaningless, boring, and therefore, unnecessary" mold the education system tries to pour them all into.

Related Articles