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Does Your Child's Preschool Shun the the Latest Research in Early Learning and Neuroscience?

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

Contrary to popular belief, early academics aren't beneficial to preschoolers.

Contrary to popular belief, early academics aren't beneficial to preschoolers.

When college students leave 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 worlds.

They quickly discover what they learned in their classes (what their professors lectured about, what they read in their textbooks, what they studied for their exams) doesn'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 happens in the real world more pronounced than in early childhood education. College students learn one thing in their classes and must do nearly the opposite when they get hired to work at preschools.

Not only are they poorly compensated, these teachers 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 Isn't Academic

Today, parents of preschoolers get a boat-load of misinformation about what constitutes good practices in early childhood education.

Many moms and dads are now convinced the main goal of preschool is to prepare kids academically for kindergarten: reciting the alphabet, counting to 100, learning the days of the week, sitting still for stories, and writing their names.

They don't realize the mastery of these narrow skills doesn't align with the latest findings in neuroscience.

They don't understand some preschools in the United States are actually doing the polar opposite of what research recommends.

What Research Tells Us About Early Learning

1. Early academics don't make kids smarter.

2. Kids learn the most by exploring.

3. Optimal learning springs from curiosity.

4. Early academics narrow learning.

5. Broader skills matter most.

6. Early academics create anxiety.

7. Play is the foundation of learning.

8. Pretending promotes literacy.

1. Early Academics Don't Make Kids Smarter

Today, it's common practice for preschool owners and administrators to twist the latest findings in neuroscience to market their businesses. They call their establishments “learning centers” instead of preschools and describe them as enriching, stimulating, academically rigorous, and brain enhancing.

They claim workbooks, flashcards, computers, STEM lessons, and teacher-directed learning will give students a head-start—that competitive edge so many parents covet for their kids. Because of this, moms and dads start imagining their youngsters becoming little geniuses who will one day receive early admissions at MIT and secure lucrative careers in Silicon Valley.

Yet, what led to preschool owners and administrators thinking early academics make kids smarter and then peddling this incorrect theory to parents?

It all started with a discovery in brain research. Scientists found young children rapidly develop connections called synapses during the first three to four years of life.

Now, some preschool owners and administrators tragically misinterpret the significance of this discovery. They believe it supports early rigorous learning but it doesn't.

2. Kids Learn the Most by Exploring

Patricia Wolfe sets the record straight on what neuroscience teaches us about early learning in Brain Matters: Translating Research Into Classroom Practice.

She explains the more synapses children make during their early years doesn't translate into greater intelligence. That’s because youngsters prune the synapses they don’t need as they grow older.

Sadly, some preschool owners and administrators leave out that relevant fact when marketing their businesses. They try to entice parents with the promise of an "enriched learning environment," but Wolfe says young children don’t need it.

She asserts little ones don’t require ultra-stimulating conditions to reach their full potential—in fact, quite the opposite. Based on the latest research, kids actually do better in a normal, everyday environment than a super-charged one.

Wolfe 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, preschoolers learn more from exploring their surroundings than sitting down and writing in workbooks.

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

3. Optimal Learning Springs From Curiosity

Wolfe says young children have all they need within themselves to learn most effectively. They have innate curiosity, an intense desire to explore their surroundings, and robust imaginations. They just need time and space to unleash these natural abilities.

Throw in some good friends, supportive adults, and a safe environment and you have the best ingredients for optimal learning!

Grownups shouldn’t see young children as empty vessels who need to be filled with knowledge. Parents don’t need to buy their kids the latest technology, overpriced STEM sets, and elaborate phonics kits. Preschool teachers shouldn’t be focused on planning every minute of their students’ day, having them move from one structured activity to the next.

The renowned Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, who taught us so much about child development, lamented the over-involvement of adults in a youngster’s learning. He famously said: “When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.”

4. Early Academics Narrow Learning

Sadly, some misinformed parents view playing at preschool as wasted time that could be better spent doing “real learning.” They want their kids to write in workbooks, use computers, sit still at circle time, do science projects, complete math worksheets, and master the alphabet.

They want to see results: their youngsters reciting the days of the week, recognizing patterns, tying their shoes, counting to 100, and knowing their letter sounds.

Today, many parents expect their kids to learn these narrow skills in preparation for kindergarten. They worry their children will be behind their classmates when starting elementary school if they aren’t adequately primed in preschool.

Anxious parents, opportunistic politicians, and misguided preschool owners and administrators have pushed for early academic learning. As a result, a research-based approach in early childhood education has been tossed aside in favor of what’s popular.

Sadly, the broader and more consequential scope of learning has shrunk in favor of smaller, circumscribed skills that are largely irrelevant to little ones.

A preschool teacher who says, “I want my students to exit my classroom with a profound love of learning and a hunger to discover more” has the right approach according to research. Her tack is far superior to that of a teacher who says, “I want my students to recognize the alphabet and write their numbers to 20 before they exit my classroom.”

5. Broader Skills Matter Most

Most preschool owners and administrators are well aware of the vast amounts of research that support play as the foundation of learning. Unfortunately, some succumb to demands for early academics coming from parents, politicians, and the general public.

Therefore, they require their teaching staff to de-emphasize the broad knowledge that was once the cornerstone of early childhood education. The “big picture” goals of preschool—working together as a team, solving conflicts on your own, exploring new materials, developing wonder about the world, being persistent, and coping with frustration—now take a backseat.

Sadly, this has a far-reaching negative impact, not only on kids but on society as a whole. Our future workers, leaders, and citizens will have less of what matters most: critical thinking skills, people skills, empathy, creativity, curiosity, and initiative.

6. Early Academics Create Anxiety

Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, the author of Taking Back Childhood, criticizes our nation for thrusting academics on children before they’re ready. She decries what we do to our preschoolers: testing them, assessing them, lecturing to them, filling them with knowledge, making them sit still for long periods of time, and then falsely labeling them “hyperactive” and “disruptive” when they can’t.

She celebrates play as the best way for youngsters to express their creativity, learn to solve problems, soothe their souls, become more inquisitive, build friendships, and promote their cognitive abilities.

While visiting preschools around the country, Dr. Carlsson-Paige’s heart broke when she observed kids already disenchanted with school and turned off to learning. She witnessed firsthand how early academics come at a high cost.

She summed it up with this warning for those who cling to the “earlier is better” mentality: "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 preschoolers to develop pre-reading skills, but few realize play is the best way to accomplish that.

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

7. Play Is the Foundation of Learning

While moms and dads in the United States are obsessed with the notion that “earlier is better,” parents in other parts of the world aren’t.

They’re more mindful about slowing down to celebrate each stage of their children’s development. They have no desire to rush their youngsters into growing up faster and learning things earlier.

They know how detrimental it would be to their long-term mental and emotional well-being.They want their young children to have lots of time to play, pretend, explore, interact, and just be kids.

Nova Scotia, Canada is a good example of this. Their government recently revealed a new early learning framework with play as its centerpiece. Its authors describe play with these lofty 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 pretending and playing isn’t wasted time at all but is, in fact, a crucial early step in developing literacy skills.

While using their imaginations at preschool, children develop robust vocabularies and strong communication skills. These are necessary for them to become competent readers, writers, and speakers. When they talk to, listen to, and interact with peers while pretending and playing, preschoolers acquire the prerequisites for literacy.

Because of this, a preschool should have multiple areas established for imaginative play. For example, they can have a kitchen where kids pretend to be chefs, a veterinary clinic where they treat sick animals, and a landscaping business where they plant trees, bury bulbs, and arrange rocks.

These areas 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, age-appropriate way.

In the video below, 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 warned against what’s now a reality in the United States: a pushed down curriculum.

A pushed down curriculum means speeding up learning, teaching what was once the curriculum in first grade to kindergartners and teaching what was once the curriculum in kindergarten to preschoolers.

They contended that the prevailing “earlier is better” mentality was “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 argued linguistic awareness is best fostered in an organic way at preschool and at 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 pretending, playing, exploring, and interacting.

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 preschool 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 exhilarated by 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.