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How America's Preschools Are Getting Destroyed by a Push-Down Curriculum That Pushes out Play

The author is a former preschool and kindergarten teacher with a master's degree in special education. She writes on early childhood issues.

A push-down curriculum has children learning more at an earlier age. However, there's no evidence that shows this has any long-term benefit.

A push-down curriculum has children learning more at an earlier age. However, there's no evidence that shows this has any long-term benefit.

You see a child play, and it is so close to seeing an artist paint, for in play a child says things without uttering a word. You can see how he solves his problems. You can also see what’s wrong. Young children, especially, have enormous creativity, and whatever’s in them rises to the surface in free play.

— Erik Erikson

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

School shootings, global warming, elder abuse, automation replacing workers, hate groups sprouting up online, sexual harassment in the workplace...and, of course, too much play time at preschool! Yes, with all the major problems facing our country and world today, the powers-that-be decided that one of their most pressing concerns was to reduce play at preschool and replace it with a "push-down" curriculum, meaning young children learn earlier and at a faster pace than ever before. As a result, teacher-directed lessons, longer circle times, more paper-pencil tasks, early reading skills, the now ubiquitous STEM activities, and even standardized testing have become routine at many public and private preschools across the land. For anyone who knows anything about early childhood education or cares a whit about kids (and I hope that's everyone), this gets a big, yikes!

Who the Heck Wanted to Change Preschool?

It's odd for us who enjoyed an idyllic preschool experience—painting at the easel, riding tricycles in the yard, building with blocks on the rug, and putting on puppet shows behind a curtain—to comprehend the push to change any of that. Have you ever talked to anyone who said, “I sure had a dreadful experience in preschool?” The answer is a resounding “no!” (if the government was proposing massive changes to middle school, I dare say we'd all have a lot of suggestions)! Scholars in early child education agree that play is how children learn best—not teacher-directed lessons, workbooks, and paper-pencil tasks. So the obvious question is: Why was there a need to alter preschool when experts, parents, and kids were happy with it?

Follow the Money Trail

One only needs to follow the money trail to answer that question. Our federal government has slowly been inserting itself in preschool education for years. Big business—tech companies, test-makers, and developers of educational toys and games—have seen dollar signs in the preschool marketplace. They've convinced parents that earlier is better when it comes to technology even though there's overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Why does Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, have a louder voice in education today while early childhood scholars such as Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane Ravitch get silenced? Ka-ching!

Those setting the educational agenda today see preschool as nothing more than the first year of schooling—a time to prepare for kindergarten. They believe it's a period when youngsters should learn skills that will serve them well in their academic future: sitting quietly while listening to a story, learning letter sounds so they can read, writing letters so they can make words, and recognizing numbers so they can do math. They reject the notion that preschool is a unique experience unto itself that should involve active learning, exploration, play, cooperation, and sensory experiences.

When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.

— Jean Piaget

Preschool was once all about exploring, socializing, and playing. Now it's about sitting still and listening, writing numbers and letters, and using technology.

Preschool was once all about exploring, socializing, and playing. Now it's about sitting still and listening, writing numbers and letters, and using technology.

Too Much Technology Too Soon

Many parents today, having grown up with video games and utilizing computers in their careers, see no downside to their youngsters spending countless hours with their smartphones, iPads, and laptops. In fact, they see it as a wholly positive thing, thinking it's preparing them for a high-tech world. They also enjoy the added benefit of something that keeps their kids entertained, safe and sound at home.

Pediatricians, teachers, and developmental psychologists, however, are now sounding the alarm about the dangers of too much technology too soon. According to a Kaiser Foundation study, children are spending on average 7.5 hours per day on their gadgets for entertainment alone, not to mention the time at school and for homework. Seventy-five percent of these youngsters have a television set in their bedrooms, and 50 percent of North American homes have a TV on all day long.

With kids using technology for the majority of their leisure time, we are now seeing negative repercussions such as obesity, weak motor skills, poor coordination, less creativity, insufficient communication skills, and an increase in anxiety and depression. Because little children are so transfixed by their gadgets, they're becoming hardwired for speed and instant gratification. When entering preschool and kindergarten, they struggle to control themselves, follow directions, and pay attention.

I see the harm education reform is causing children—the disappearance of play, creativity, and the arts from our schools. Evaluation is now driving curriculum, and curriculum is being reduced to something mechanistic. This isn't learning.

— Nancy Carlsson-Paige

What's Destroying America's Preschools? Common Core, Big Government, and Parental Ignorance

1. Common Core: Making Preschool Less Child-Centered

Common Core—standards to make education uniform across the country—is dramatically changing early learning for the worse. Fortunately, scholars in early childhood education have started a coalition, Defending the Early Years, to combat it. Their mission is to “defend play and playful learning in today's world of over-testing and corporate reforms that devalue the rights of children and the craft of teaching.”

With every good intention in the world, this coalition is David fighting Goliath. The Gates Foundation—led by Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, and his wife, Melinda— has already donated over $200 million to promote Common Core. Sadly, the budget at Defending the Early Years is .006% of that. While Mr. Gates is undeniably a leader in the computer world, his knowledge of early learning is sadly lacking. It's a tragic state of affairs when this billionaire is setting educational policy and not scholars who've devoted their entire lives to studying how young children learn.

Despite their lack of funds, the leaders of Defending the Early Years are not backing down—empowered by passion. They advocate for the rights of young learners and push the following:

  • Acknowledge that academic rigor has no place in early learning. Naming letters and numbers is superficial compared to the bigger picture of encouraging creativity, imagination, problem solving, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, social skills, and self-regulation.
  • Acknowledge that teachers are professionals in their classrooms. Don't take away their autonomy—making them stick to a script designed to get higher test scores. Let them be creative, innovative, and original.
  • Acknowledge that children in low-income communities who attend government-run programs are being disproportionately hurt by academic rigor, assessment, and teacher-directed learning. While youngsters in wealthier communities continue to enjoy play time, the arts, and child-centered activities, youngsters in government-run schools endure too much testing, sitting still, and rote learning. Unfortunately, these government-run preschools are under the thumb of the government and must show test results to get funded.
  • Acknowledge the disparity in preschool programs between rich and poor. According to the Department of Education, 8,000 children from public preschools get suspended at least once in a school year (many more than that). A disproportionate number of these youngsters are poor black boys who are reacting adversely (and quite naturally) to a play-deficient environment.

There Is No Evidence to Support Reading Instruction in Preschool and Kindergarten

2. Big Government: Reducing the Role of Teachers

Experts are predicting our nation will soon face a severe teacher shortage, causing school districts to hire people with only an undergraduate degree, not a credential. The federal government has largely created this crisis as they've seized control of educational policy, stripped autonomy from educators, and diminished the role of teachers. Goodhearted people who entered the profession—not to get rich but to help children learn and grow—are now leaving because they're fed up with their new assignments: teaching to the tests, administering tests, and pretending as if test results are the be-all and end-all in defining success

This is especially true with early childhood educators, forced to ignore what they know about developmentally appropriate practices and to act as if all children are “standard”—that they all develop in the same way and at the same rate. Teachers with integrity know it's hogwash and refuse to play the game. One teacher sums it up for many: “I see kids with eyes glazed who are simply overwhelmed by being constantly asked to perform tasks for which they are not ready to do.”

When knowledgeable educators exit the profession, they leave a void that's filled by inexperienced people who've been indoctrinated by the government's call for academic rigor. They lack an adequate background in early childhood education so they go along with the government's plan that involves too much seat work, too much testing, and too many structured lessons and not enough creativity, play, exploration, and movement. Low income areas are hit the hardest by the influx of inexperienced educators. Programs such as “Teach America” recruit graduates fresh out of college, give them minimal training, and then send them to teach in challenging environments. With inadequate training and limited experience, they often become frustrated and decide teaching is not the profession for them.

I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my personal approach that creates the climate. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.

— Haim Ginott

Parents are convinced that their children's technology use when help them succeed in life. But young kids would be far better off with no screen time and more time outside: playing, socializing, and enjoying nature.

Parents are convinced that their children's technology use when help them succeed in life. But young kids would be far better off with no screen time and more time outside: playing, socializing, and enjoying nature.

3. Parental Ignorance: Little Knowledge of Child Development

Parents today—overwhelmed with jobs, commuting, and technology—seem more than okay with letting the federal government seize control of education (unless they're homeschooling parents, who seem to understand what's at risk). It's their trusting nature combined with utter ignorance about child development that's leading us down a dangerous path where teachers introduce a checklist of discrete skills and not educate the entire person—body, mind, and soul.

My little neighbor, Lily, has parents who want the best for their child but are clueless about what makes up high quality early learning. They're overly impressed with the phonics worksheets from Kumon that teach sounding out skills, fully convinced that early reading skills transfer into long-range academic success (they don't). It doesn't seem to trouble them that Lily detests these “drill and kill” sheets, that paper-pencil task are highly unsuitable for a 4-year-old, and that there is no research that backs up this kind of instruction. Lily would benefit more by cuddling with her parents in bed, listening to a Dr. Seuss book, and making the connection in her mind that reading equals love, comfort, and safety. Knowing that reading means pleasure is far more important than knowing the letter B makes the buh sound.

Unfortunately, parents are woefully uninformed about the harmful effects of early academic rigor and largely ignorant about the benefits of play. Here is what they need to consider:

  • Play is how children learn. It enhances language development, social skills , gross and fine motor acquisition, imagination, and creativity. According to renown psychologist, Erik Erikson, children who are play-deprived as young children may become adversely affected in their later learning.
  • Finland now leads the way as a model for superior schools. Play there is highly esteemed. Formal academics in Finland don't begin until age 7. Seven and eight-year-olds have a half day of academics combined with a half day of play.
  • Research shows that all people—young and old—should go outside for at least 2 hours each day. The exposure to the outdoors regulates our metabolisms, lifts our moods, and reduces stress.
  • While play in the US has sharply decreased, anxiety, depression, narcissism, and obesity have sharply increased.
  • Earlier does not mean better. Readers at age 5 have no learn term benefits over those who learn to read at 6, 7, or even older.

Final Thoughts

Tech companies, text-book publishes, test creators, learning centers such as Kumon—all have a financial stake in promoting academic rigor. They have a limited knowledge about how young children learn, and they're motivated by greed. Common Core, Big Government, and anxious parents are leading the way in destroying preschool as we know it and this will lead to many negative consequences in the future. The saddest part is: the experts have warned us and we've chosen to ignore them.

I Highly Recommend This Book That Champions Imaginative Play and Down-Time for Young Children

© 2015 McKenna Meyers