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5 Things Children Learn in Preschool That Are a Waste of Time

Updated on August 27, 2017
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I'm a credentialed teacher with a master's degree in special education. I spent many years teaching preschool and kindergarten.

Circle time, calendar, craft projects, and worksheets:

They're part of a typical preschool schedule, and parents get easily impressed by them. However, research shows they're largely a waste of time and sometimes even detrimental to children.

Calendar and Other Whole Group Activities at Preschool Are Largely a Waste of Time

Preschool teachers co-opt strategies from their elementary school counterparts even though they're developmentally inappropriate for young children. Little kids need hands-on activities.
Preschool teachers co-opt strategies from their elementary school counterparts even though they're developmentally inappropriate for young children. Little kids need hands-on activities. | Source

1. The Calendar

Most preschool classrooms have a cozy spot where the teacher sits in a chair and the students gather on the rug for circle time. The focal point is typically a gigantic calendar, intended to help the children learn about the days of the week, the months of the years, and concepts of time (yesterday, today, and tomorrow). The teacher says with over-the-top enthusiasm: “Okay, class, yesterday was Monday. Today is Tuesday. What will tomorrow be?” Although they've been doing this same routine for months, the kids look at her blankly as if she asked them how to solve global warming. Someone calls out Sunday. Another guesses Friday. A third timidly suggests Saturday. Running out of days, someone finally announces Wednesday. The teacher then delightfully proclaims,Correct! as if that kid were some kind of genius.

Like many other activities in preschools today, calendar time is developmentally inappropriate – an idea co-opted from elementary schools and forced upon children too young to handle it. According to the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children), there is little evidence to suggest calendar activities are meaningful for children below the first grade. That's because children need to mature before they truly understand the concept of time. Think of a young child on a long road time, constantly asking, "Are we there yet?" His parents reply, "Two hours" or "twenty more minutes" or "less than an hour" but no answer satisfies. That's because those measures of time are utterly insignificant to him.

Furthermore, while calendar time introduces early math concepts (counting, patterning, sequencing), experts in early childhood education argue that kids learn them more efficiently when handling concrete materials. In Calendar Time for Young Children: Good Intentions Gone Awry, the authors agree that math is better taught in small groups so children can explore with manipulatives such as Unifix cubes, geoboards, and pattern blocks. When a skilled teacher guides kids --- asking questions and prompting exploration – students get far more from the experience than when they do whole group calendar time.

2. Craft Projects

Pinterest, the on-line site of images, has influenced preschool education in a wholly negative way with its multitude of eye-catching craft projects for kids. Teachers – most with no background in arts education – look at the site to find over-the-top ideas that will impress parents. Unfortunately, these projects do nothing to foster children's creativity, independence, and decision-making. Kids follow their teacher's instructions in a step-by-step way – trying to duplicate her perfect sample. In the end, everybody's project looks the same – neat, tidy, and uninspired.

At an early age, preschool children are getting all the wrong ideas about art. They come to understand that the finished product is most important, not the process of getting there. Uniformity gets celebrated above originality. While young children with limited vocabularies once expressed themselves through paintings and drawings, they're now discouraged from doing so. They never have the chance to discover the joy of art. As they grow older, they're likely to proclaim, “I hate art. I'm no good at it!” They compare their work to others and think it comes up short. They've never learned to enjoy art as a fun, relaxing, and expressive pursuit.

A thoughtful and well-educated preschool teacher knows how important open-ended art is in the classroom. Open-ended art includes painting at the easel, drawing, coloring, molding with clay, and printmaking. These activities not only stimulate a child's imagination, they promote fine motor skills. They build strong hand and finger muscles so the youngster is ready to hold pencils and scissors correctly when she starts elementary school.

With Teacher-Directed Art Projects, Children Get Robbed of Their Creativity and Initiative

The creative process is relaxing, stimulating, and fun. Kids should want to do art.
The creative process is relaxing, stimulating, and fun. Kids should want to do art. | Source

3. Teacher-Directed Lessons

Preschools were once the place for playing, socializing, creating, exploring, and discovering. Teachers acted as facilitators, making sure everyone was safe, happy, and busy. But now the push for academic rigor has infiltrated this once sacred domain, corrupting it with practices that are unsuitable for 4 and 5-year-olds.

Teachers no longer ask the relevant question, “Is this developmentally appropriate?” Instead, they borrow what's en vogue at elementary schools and twist, pound, and shape it into something they can use with little kids – no matter how ridiculous. Teacher-directed lessons have become more prevalent than child-centered activities. Kids must sit quietly and listen at Circle Time while the teacher offers up instruction on famous artists, scientific principles, foreign countries, and so on.

At a young age, children are given the message that knowledge comes from outside themselves. They're not given opportunities to see something that intrigues them and find out more about it on their own. This is the most empowering learning, not the kind that makes them totally dependent upon an adult.

Why Intellectual Goals Are Far More Important Than Academic Achievement

4. Worksheets

Nothing seems to impress uninformed parents more than worksheets. They have it in their heads that paper-pencil tasks are real learning. The rest of it – painting at the easel, digging in the sandbox, riding tricycles – all seems frivolous and hardly worth the cost of tuition. When watching children play, they ask impatiently, “Why isn't the teacher teaching them anything?”

Preschool owners must keep their clients satisfied. Therefore, too many of them give in to parental demands for worksheets. It doesn't matter if they're for handwriting, math, reading, or phonics. If kids are sitting quietly at tables writing on them, these parents feel real learning is taking place. The owners know research doesn't support this. They know worksheets aren't developmentally appropriate. But they want to stay in business so they go with the flow, even though the children suffer.

Strong, knowledgeable, and passionate owners articulate to moms and dads how young children learn best. They have the latest research at their disposal that supports active learning – playing, exploring, and doing. The narrow isolated skills taught in worksheets is nothing compared to all that is learned in a stimulating classroom filled with curious peers and an encouraging teacher.

Paper-Pencil Tasks Mean Little to Young Children. They First Need to Discover the World Off the Page!

Parents get overly enamored by workbooks and other paper-pencil tasks. Children in preschool need to learn by doing, not by sitting and writing.
Parents get overly enamored by workbooks and other paper-pencil tasks. Children in preschool need to learn by doing, not by sitting and writing. | Source

5. Letter of the Week

Celebrating one letter per week is the traditional way preschool teachers present the alphabet. During the first week of school, “A” gets all the attention. The students bring items from home that start with the letter such as an apron or an apple. The class makes an art project of an alligator or an ape. They practice writing “A” in their workbooks. The process is slow, methodical, and tedious and not the best way for young children to learn.

Research shows the Letter of the Week approach is ineffective because, when children reach “Z,” 26 long weeks have passed and the beginning letters have long been forgotten. Experts say learning letters should get integrated into the day, not taught in isolation. Programs such as Zoo-phonics have youngsters interacting with sounds and letters by dancing, singing, and playing games. Kids do a-z every day in a fun and developmentally appropriate way.

A Wonderful Book About Letting Kids Be Kids

Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids
Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids

As a former preschool and kindergarten teacher, I can't say enough wonderful things about this book. We need Nancy Carlsson-Paige as a voice of reason, advocating for our youngest learners. Too many experts in early childhood education have gotten silenced in our country's push for academic rigor. Nancy does a fantastic job of explaining why kids need more imaginative play and down-time and fewer teacher-directed lessons. I highly recommend this book for parents looking for the right preschool.

 

© 2016 McKenna Meyers

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    • letstalkabouteduc profile image
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      McKenna Meyers 11 months ago from Bend, OR

      I agree, calculus-geometry. The children I know who became proficient in two languages have attended dual immersion schools. They spend the vast majority of their school day learning in the second language and are exposed to their native language at home. I'm amazed at how well these kids can not only speak two languages but write well in two languages.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image
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      McKenna Meyers 11 months ago from Bend, OR

      I must say, DrMark, many countries have the US beat when it comes to making their citizens bilingual and even trilingual. The studies suggest young children learn a language quicker because they're fearless about speaking it -- not worried about mispronouncing words. That makes sense to me. However, it also makes sense to me that one must become proficient in her native language before taking on a second or third. Thanks for commenting!

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      calculus-geometry 11 months ago

      I agree and disagree about point number 2. Children growing up in bilingual homes disprove the notion that you have to have mastered your mother tongue to acquire another language, or that early exposure to two languages hinders your ability to be fluent in either. In the US, people who have a native English speaking parent and a foreign parent usually end up speaking English like a native, and their foreign parent's language only semi-fluently but with perfect comprehension. Semi-lingualism in the toddler years corrects itself.

      The reason why pre-school level foreign language instruction fails to produce children fluent in another language is because there is no reinforcement of the second language in the home, in daily life, which is what you need in order to speak another language reasonably well and understand it when it is spoken to you. They get at most a few hours a week learning to say colors, numbers, hi, and bye in another language, usually from a teacher who isn't a native speaker.

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 11 months ago from The Beach of Brazil

      I am definitely no expert on this subject but I disagree with the studies that say that early adolesence is the best time to learn a foreign language. I think early childhood, preschool to be exact, is the best. We speak Arabic at home, but when my daughter started preschool in the US she picked up English in a few days, something a preschooler can do easily.

      As far as the risk of semi-lingualism? I have met plenty of Americans that are monolingual and are not able to use your language correctly. When we Brazilians learn a foreign language early it helps us to reinforce our first language, and I think the same goes for children in US preschools.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image
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      McKenna Meyers 16 months ago from Bend, OR

      Jennifer, you are anything but lazy! Homeschooling takes a lot of energy, talent, and organization. Many parents know it's best but couldn't imagine making that kind of commitment.

      Your son is lucky to be able to explore art without judgment. When I taught preschool, the parents were so thrilled with the teacher-directed projects where the kids copied the teacher's sample (the owner made us do these). They'd often make sour faces when their children had a "messy" painting to take home. They had no idea what real kids art looked like. It made me sad.

    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 16 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

      Amen and amen!

      I home school my three kids. This explains why my 4-year-old still has no clue about the days of the week. He does enjoy circle time, because we're all together and we sing.

      He has started doing drawings which are not recognizable to anyone but himself. But he takes great care over them, choosing a variety of colors. It's fun to watch.

      Yet I know some people probably think I'm a lazy parent because I have not enrolled him in preschool.

      Thanks for this well-informed article and the delightful pictures of preschoolers.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image
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      McKenna Meyers 16 months ago from Bend, OR

      Yes. There's a lot to consider when selecting a preschool. Play-based is best.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 16 months ago from the short journey

      These concepts are definitely worth pondering and using as a guide in preparing young children for school.