Ms. Meyers is a long-time preschool and kindergarten teacher who writes about issues in early childhood education and advocates for play.
Reality and Research at Odds
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. They quickly discover that what they've learned in their classes—what their professors lectured about, what they read in their textbooks, and what they studied for 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 in the world of 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 to work at a preschool. Not only are they poorly compensated, they must forsake what they know is best for young children to do what's demanded of them by their bosses and by the parents of their students. 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 utterly 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 some preschools in the United States are doing the polar opposite of what the research dictates.
What Research Tells Us About Early Childhood Education
1. Early academics don't make smarter kids
2. Kids learn best from 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
While some preschool owners shun research in early learning, others misrepresent it. Today, this is quite common and conspicuous as owners twist the latest findings in neuroscience in order to market their businesses. For example, they call their establishments “learning centers” and describe them with words such as: enriching, stimulating, academically rigorous, and brain enhancing They boast about using workbooks, flashcards, computers, STEM lessons, and teacher-directed learning to give their students a competitive edge. They get prospective parents imagining their kids becoming little geniuses who will one day receive early admissions at MIT and secure lucrative careers in Silicon Valley.
What are the origins of this fallacy that early academics make kids smarter? It can be traced to a recent discovery in brain research. Scientists found that young children rapidly develop connections called synapses during the first three to four years of life. Sadly, some preschool owners misinterpreted these findings, thinking they supported rigorous academic learning for little kids when they don’t.
2. Kids Learn Best From 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 that the more synapses children make during their early years doesn't translate into greater intelligence. She points out that youngsters prune these synapses as they grow older, trimming away the ones they don't need.
While preschools entice parents with promises of an enriched learning environment,” Wolfe assures moms and dads that young children don’t require this. She states that littles ones don’t need especially stimulating conditions to reach their potential. In fact, she says that the opposite is true based on the latest research. In fact, kids do better in a normal, everyday environment than a super charged one.
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.”
3. Optimal Learning Springs From Curiosity
Wolfe stresses that young children have all they need to learn within themselves: an innate curiosity, a robust imagination, and an intense desire to explore their surroundings. Therefore, teachers shouldn’t see them as empty vessels, waiting to be filled with knowledge. Parents shouldn’t worry about buying them the latest technology, overpriced STEM sets, and elaborate phonics kits. Preschools shouldn’t be obsessed with planning every minute of their day, having them move from one structured activity to another.
Instead, young children need lots of opportunities to interact with one another, ample time to investigate their environment (both indoors and out), and warm, loving relationships with teachers who guide and support them. Their most powerful learning comes when they discover things on their own, following their curiosities. The renowned Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, who’s taught us so much about child development, lamented the 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 parents now see play at preschool as synonymous with wasting time. Too many uninformed moms and dads, viewing it as frivolous and unnecessary, demand that “real learning" take place instead. To them, that means workbooks, computers, circle time, science projects, handwriting lessons, and alphabet activities. Moreover, they want to see results: youngsters reciting the days of the week, recognizing patterns, tying their shoes, counting to 100, and knowing their letter sounds.
Now, more than ever, parents expect their preschoolers to master these narrow skills. Now, more than ever, they call for academic preparation, fearing their children will be behind their kindergarten classmates if they don’t get it. Parenting out of anxiety, though, has caused us to lose our way in early childhood education. Today, broader, more consequential skills get minimized in favor of irrelevant, circumscribed ones.
5. Broader Skills Matter Most
Most preschool owners are well aware of the research that supports play as the foundation of learning for young children. Unfortunately, some succumb to the demands for early academics that come from politicians, school administrators, parents, and society. Because of this, they turn around and pressure their teachers to de-emphasize the broader skills that were once the cornerstone of early childhood education: how to get along with others, work together as a team, solve problems, explore new materials, deal with conflict, develop curiosity, be persistent, and experience failure and frustration.
To stay in business and attract new clients, some preschool owners now push academic activities that are developmentally inappropriate. Sadly, the emphasis on these narrow skills has a far-reaching negative impact on kids and society as a whole. It reduces time for more consequential activities such as exploring, playing, and pretending. As a result, workers, leaders, and citizens in the future will have less of what matters most: critical thinking skills, people skills, creativity, curiosity, and initiative.
6. Early Academics Create Anxiety
In Taking Back Childhood (a book I 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 to them, filling them with knowledge, and pressuring them to learn too much too soon. She celebrates play as the best way for youngsters to express their creativity, solve their problems, soothe their souls, and build friendships.
When she visited preschools around the country, her heart broke when she observed kids already disenchanted with school and turned off to learning. Because of her decades-long career in early childhood education, she knew that youngsters learn best through play, purposeful experiences, exploration, and warm interactions with both peers and adults. She knew early academics came at a high cost. She summed it up with this warning for those with 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."
7. Play Is the Foundation of Learning
Parents in the United States are gripped by the earlier is better mentality unlike those in other parts of the world. Mom and dads in these countries are far more mindful to celebrate each stage of a youngster's development. They have no desire to rush their kids to grow up faster and learn things earlier. They know how detrimental that is to children’s 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 this document, the authors describe play in the loftiest of terms. They write of it: “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 pretend-play isn’t wasted time at all but is, in fact, the foundation of literacy skills. While using their imaginations at preschool, children develop robust vocabularies and strong communication abilities. These skills are necessary for them to become competent readers, writers, and speakers. When they talk to, listen to, and interact with peers during pretend-play, preschoolers are developing the prerequisites of literacy.
Therefore, preschools should have multiple areas set up for imaginative play. For example, they could 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 this video, 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 has now become a reality in the United States: the so-called pushed down curriculum. This 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 wrote 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 that 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 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 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 getting electrified 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.