5 Popular Preschool Activities That Are a Waste of Time
Calendar Time, Craft Projects, Teacher-Directed Lessons, Worksheets, and Letter of the Week
These five activities are part of a typical preschool schedule, and parents rarely question their legitimacy. Instead, they see them as "real learning" and what's needed to prepare kids for kindergarten. Many child development experts, however, believe they're largely a waste of time and may even be detrimental.
You can teach your Pre-K class to recite the days of the week and months of the year, but they don't really understand what it means.— Karen Cox, Pre-K teacher and early childhood blogger
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 a gigantic calendar, intended to help the children learn 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's asked them how to solve climate change. 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 at 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 their article, "Calendar Time for Young Children: Good Intentions Gone Awry," the authors agree that math is better taught in small groups so children can handle manipulatives such as Unifix cubes, geoboards, and pattern blocks. When a skilled teacher guides them— asking questions and prompting exploration—students get far more from the experience than when they do whole group calendar time.
Unrestricted exploration helps children form connections in their brain...The freedom to manipulate different materials in an organic and unstructured way allows for exploration and experimentation.— Kylie Rymanowicz, child development expert and parent educator
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 robotic 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 get the wrong ideas about art, thinking the finished product is more important than the process of getting there. Uniformity gets celebrated above originality. While young children with limited vocabularies once expressed themselves through paintings and drawings, they now have fewer opportunities to do so. They miss out on one of the greatest joys of art: self-expression.
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 never learned how magical art is—a fun, relaxing, and expressive pursuit to enjoy for themselves.
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 youngsters are ready to hold pencils and scissors correctly when starting elementary school.
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. Now, though, 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, foreign countries, the solar system, engineering, endangered species, 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 kind of learning that's most empowering, not the kind that makes them totally dependent upon an adult.
Professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige is the co-founder of Defending the Early Years, an organization that advocates for the use of developmentally appropriate practices with preschoolers. She and her colleagues are deeply concerned about the steep rise in teacher-directed lessons and the steady decline in time for play and exploration. In a recent speech about this topic, she concluded with the following words:
"I hope we early childhood educators in the United States can strengthen our advocacy for children so they can have a more child-centered education. And I hope that we can advocate for a schooling where reading, writing and math are connected to what children care about and experience. This is the way to help children learn optimally and learn to love school. And it's the path we have to be on if we want to educate not just children but future citizens who will contribute to making a better world."
Let the child be the scriptwriter, the director and the actor in his own play.— Magda Gerber
Why Intellectual Goals Are Far More Important Than Academic Achievement
Nothing seems to impress uninformed parents more than workbooks. 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 and the kids are getting ready for kindergarten. The owners know research doesn't support this. They know workbooks 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 workbooks is nothing compared to all that is learned in a stimulating classroom filled with curious peers and an encouraging teacher.
Angela Pyle, an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto's Erick Jackman Institute of Child Study, argues that young children learn more effectively with hands-on materials than paper-pencil tasks. As the mother of a 4-year-old herself, she writes: I know that the research says my daughter will actually learn more from playing than completing a workbook, and she will actually be better able to learn the skills required for literacy and numeracy. It sounds counter intuitive that preschoolers learn more, and better, from play than they do from worksheets and seat-work, but it's true."
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.
Benjamin Franklin said: "Tell me and I forget. Teach me, and I may remember. Involve me and I learn!" This philosophy is at the root of Zoo-phonics as children use their bodies to move like animals and make each letter sound. It's a sensory experience of hearing, seeing, saying, and doing. What the children learn is retained and will not be forgotten.
What do you think?
What do you believe is the biggest waste of time at preschool?
Kids need to move more at preschool, not less!
A Wonderful Book About Letting Kids Be 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.
Questions & Answers
What can I do as a teacher required to follow a curriculum that includes developmentally inappropriate and wasteful lessons?
You're certainly not alone as many preschool teachers today feel pressured to instruct in ways that go against what they learned in early childhood education classes. Some have walked away from their jobs because they strongly believe that preschool shouldn't be a preparation year for kindergarten but something separate, unique, and magical. Others like you are willing to stay and fight but aren't sure the best way to do it. I applaud you for wanting to make a difference.
Fortunately, preschool teachers who champion developmentally appropriate practices, play, exploration, hands-on learning, open-ended art, and child-centered experiences have the backing of developmental psychologists, pediatricians, early childhood scholars, and decades of research. The organization “Defending the Early Years” has a fantastic website with many powerful articles to read and share with parents and your employer. Posting articles in your classroom or your school newsletter will get them thinking about issues in a new light based on research, not emotion.
When it comes to education, some moms and dads today are governed by just one overwhelming feeling: anxiety. They're fearful that their youngsters won't be academically prepared for kindergarten. Preschool teachers need to help them see the bigger picture—that preschool is about preparing kids for life, not elementary school. A preschool teacher who can articulate these ideas and change the minds of parents has accomplished something profound.
When my son attended a co-op preschool, we had parent meetings once a month that included guest speakers. These individuals were psychologists, pediatricians, teachers, social workers, and community leaders. They talked about early childhood education in a broader sense and confirmed everything that we were doing at the preschool. They helped us parents see that a good preschool encourages play, socialization, and self-directed learning and turns out well-adjusted individuals who could handle challenges, live wholeheartedly, and be kind, contributing members of society.
I have an article called “33 Reasons Why a Play Based Preschool Is Better Than an Academic One.” The link is https://wehavekids.com/education/Preschoolers-Lear... It includes a TED Talk video by Dr. Peter Gray who discusses the decline of play and the rise of depression, anxiety, suicide, and narcissism among children and teens. It's something all parents should see, especially moms and dads of preschool-aged kids.Helpful 44
When I pick up my son from preschool, he always wants to invite friends to our house to play. Shouldn't he be worn out from playing at preschool?
Yes, he definitely should be! Unfortunately, many preschools in the United States are academically based, not play based, since parents are now fixated on getting their youngsters prepared for kindergarten. Kids, therefore, are now spending an unhealthy amount of time indoors, sitting at long circle times, and listening to teacher-directed lessons. They don't spend nearly enough time playing with each other, running, climbing, building, creating, talking, and pretending.
When my older son attended a cooperative parent preschool that followed the guidelines of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), he'd be wiped out at the end of class. That's because he had been riding tricycles, making canals in the sandbox, climbing on the jungle gym, hammering, building with blocks, and dressing up in the dramatic play corner. The entire three hours was him moving and doing. The only time he sat was while eating a snack and doing the 10-minute end-of-the-day sing-along. He was always ready for a nap after preschool because he was thoroughly exhausted—that wonderful kind of fatigue that comes from having so much fun and using so much creative energy.
Unfortunately, our family relocated so my younger son couldn't attend the same play-based preschool. Based on a neighbor's recommendation, I sent him to an academic based preschool and quickly discovered it was a huge mistake. Just like your boy, my son would beg me to invite friends over to our house to play after each class. These youngsters had spent the morning working in handwriting books, doing teacher-directed crafts at tables, listening to long circle times about the calendar and weather, sitting for two or three stories, and doing math-related learning stations. They were only given 15 minutes each day to spend outside. They were starving for more time to interact with one another and do activities of their choosing.
These contrasting experiences—one with a play based preschool and the other with an academic based one--motivated me to write an article on the topic. You might find it helpful in deciding whether to keep your son at this preschool or look for another. It's called “33 Reasons Why a Play Based Preschool Is Better Than an Academic One.” Here's the link: https://hubpages.com/education/Preschoolers-Learn-...Helpful 40
My daughter was so bored during calendar time at preschool and just zoned out. Then I was shocked to see that she had to endure pretty much the same calendar routine in kindergarten and first grade. What's with all the focus on the calendar?
I noticed the same phenomenon as you with both my sons—teachers doing basically the same calendar routine in preschool, kindergarten, first grade, and second. This occurs because preschool and kindergarten teachers co-opt the elementary school curriculum and twist, pound, and mold it to use with their young students. Taking lessons that are designed for older kids and thrusting them upon those who aren't ready is not only a waste of precious time in preschool, but is potentially harmful and definitely outside the realm of what's considered developmentally appropriate. Too many parents get easily impressed by calendar activities in preschool (thinking their kids are getting “advanced” instruction) when, in reality, time could be much better spent on playing, exploring, and interacting.
Decades of research shows that little children learn differently than older ones, and that's why we have the field of early childhood education. Their brains are wired for sensory experiences, hands-on exploration, and kinesthetic learning. Sitting at circle time as the teacher drones on about numerals and patterns on the calendar is no benefit to them. Trying to make sense of time concepts such as yesterday, today, and tomorrow causes them unnecessary confusion, stress, and frustration.
I recently visited a top-notch preschool where an astute teacher did an amazing thing. After years of dutifully doing the calendar every morning with her class, she looked at the little faces before her and saw zombies. She had always loved doing the calendar (in fact, it was her favorite part of being a preschool teacher) but at that moment she saw how boring it was for the kids. After school that day she took down her gigantic calendar and gathered up all her calendar supplies.
The next week when her students came to school there was, much to their delight, a new dramatic play area in the corner—a classroom! It included a desk, chairs, writing materials, a chalkboard and, yes, that enormous calendar and all the calendar supplies. From that day forward, the children would pretend to be teachers. Instead of watching her go through the days of the week, the numerals, and the patterns, they got to do it by interacting with the materials themselves, not just sitting there and watching. It was preschool education at its very best!Helpful 39
Don't kids need time also to develop fine motor skills and writing skills, and that's why we should slow down and give only one letter per week?
If I were to add a sixth item to my list of developmentally inappropriate practices at preschool, it would be handwriting. Children should be playing, pretending, exploring, and socializing, not sitting at tables learning how to make symbols that have no meaning to them. This is only happening at preschools today because owners and teachers are under pressure from parents, politicians, and elementary schools to prepare youngsters for kindergarten. Common Core and other legislation have turned preschools into adult-centered environments that now serve an adult-centered agenda.
Preschoolers are the ones who get hurt by this. They should be doing activities that prepare them for the rest of their lives, not for kindergarten. They should be discovering how to get along with others, how to follow their interests to learn new things, how to enjoy time in nature and develop a respect for all living things, and how to use their imaginations to pretend their doctors, veterinarians, chefs, shopkeepers, and engineers. They should be doing things that make them happy, creative, curious, and healthier in body, mind, and soul. There's no benefit for them to do paper-pencil work at preschool.
For youngsters who are intrigued by letters and words, every preschool should have a writing center and dramatic play centers: an area with paper, markers, crayons, and pencils so they can make cards and create stories, a classroom library so they can look at books, and a dress-up corner so they can play school. The classroom should be a place where early literacy is celebrated with nursery rhymes, fairy tales, poems, songs, finger plays, and rhyming games. Kids shouldn't be forced to stop play, sit down, and do their abc's because that is the surest way to turn them off to writing.
Some kindergarten teachers lament that students now start school with weak fine motor skills and poor pincer grasps. That's because the activities that enhanced them (using play dough, stringing beads, doing puzzles, painting at the easel, creating with stickers, and playing games such as “Don't Break the Ice” and “Don't Spill the Beans”) have been replaced by screen time at home and long circle times and teacher-directed lessons at preschool.
Child-centered preschools were the norm a short while ago, backed by decades of research in early childhood education. Now, organizations such as DEY (Defending the Early Years) need to sound the alarm about academic preschools and the developmentally inappropriate practices they employ, especially in poor urban areas.
You may like to read my article entitled, “33 Reasons Why Parents Should Choose a Play-Based Preschool, Not an Academic One.”Helpful 12
© 2016 McKenna Meyers