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A Preschool Teacher Explains Why Early Academics Don't Make Kids Smarter

The author is a former preschool and kindergarten teacher with a master's degree in special education. She advocates for kids to play more.

Academic rigor may be appropriate for older students, but it has no place in early childhood education.

Academic rigor may be appropriate for older students, but it has no place in early childhood education.

The Push-Down Curriculum at Preschool

While most moms and dads are unfamiliar with the term push-down curriculum, they likely experience its negative impact if they have children in elementary school. Wherever parents gather–on the playground at pick up time or on the sidelines during their kids’ soccer practices– they inevitably lambaste it without using that precise verbiage. Instead, they angrily say: What was once taught in third grade is now taught in second. What was once taught in second is now taught in first, and what was once taught in first is now taught in kindergarten. It’s practically a form of child abuse as we now expect kids to learn things before they’re ready!

Not surprisingly, parents who criticize the push-down curriculum are perfectly on point. Yet, nobody sees the negative impact it has on kids more than preschool teachers. This is especially true of those who are experienced and know little ones should be spending their time playing and not doing early academics. The push-down curriculum makes them ask: Do I go along with this, teaching in ways I know are developmentally inappropriate and detrimental to my students, or do I take a stand and walk away from the profession I love?

Academic Rigor Has No Place at Preschool

Our country’s quest for so-called “academic rigor” has led to an increase in high-stakes testing, time-consuming student assessments, and nation-wide standards such as Common Core. While these measures were never meant to affect preschools (let alone radically transform them), they most certainly have. The once expansive scope of early childhood education—to make kids curious, stimulate their imaginations, and get them excited about learning—has tragically been reduced to a single aim of preparing them academically for kindergarten.

While there’s nothing wrong with raising the bar and demanding rigorous learning of our nation’s students, it shouldn’t start at preschool. Early childhood education is unique because young children are unique, learning best through playing, exploring, and interacting with one another. Since the research in this is longstanding and overwhelming, why then are preschools being wrecked by a push-down curriculum? The answer to that question can be found in the following three factors: 1) Common Core 2) government interference and 3) parental ignorance

1. Common Core

When Common Core was adopted, its goal was to standardize K-12 education across the nation. As a result, a third grader who moved from California to Georgia during the school year, for example, could seamlessly transition into her new classroom. She wouldn’t be behind her classmates or ahead of them academically. While Common Core was well-intended and had some advantages, it also had a major flaw in the opinion of many experts in early childhood education. They argued that its demands on primary grade students, especially kindergartners, were highly unreasonable and developmentally inappropriate.

Because of these new standards, some parents felt pressured to get their little ones academically prepared for kindergarten. For these anxious moms and dads, play at preschool began to seem frivolous. Their kids would need to read and write in kindergarten so they wanted them prepared for that. Thus, Common Core began to negatively impact preschools and reshape them into training grounds for kindergarten.

Opposition to Common Core

Seeing the harmful effects of this and wanting to combat it, scholars in early childhood education started a coalition called Defending the Early Years. Its aim is to fight back against academics at preschool and advocate for kids to explore, interact, and create instead. Their mission statement says they wish 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 noble intention in the world, though, Defending the Early Years is in a lopsided battle akin to David fighting Goliath. The Gates Foundation—led by Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, and his former wife, Melinda—donated over $200 million to advance Common Core. Sadly, the budget at Defending the Early Years is .006% of that. While Mr. Gates is undeniably a leader in the tech world, his knowledge of early learning is sorely lacking. It's a tragic state of affairs that this billionaire sets policy in early education instead of those who’ve devoted their lives to studying how young children learn best.

Defending the Early Years

Despite their deficit of funds, the leaders of Defending the Early Years aren’t backing down. They advocate for young children by pressing for the following:

  • Acknowledgement 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.
  • Recognition that preschool 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.
  • Admission that children in low-income communities who attend government-run preschool programs are being disproportionately hurt by academic rigor, student assessments, and adult-centered classrooms. While youngsters in wealthier communities continue to enjoy play time, the arts, and child-centered activities, youngsters in government-run preschools endure too much testing, seat work, and rote learning. Unfortunately, these government-run preschools are under the thumb of politicians and bureaucrats and must show good test results to get funded.
  • Acknowledgment of 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 get suspended more often). A disproportionate number of these youngsters are poor black boys who are reacting adversely (and quite naturally) to a play-deficient environment.

2. Government Interference

Experts predict our nation will soon face a severe teacher shortage, forcing school districts to select candidates with just undergraduate degrees instead of hiring fully credentialed ones. Our political leaders have largely created this looming problem by passing legislation such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core that have stripped teachers of autonomy in their classrooms and diminished them as professionals. Countries with much-envied school systems such as Finland, Japan, and Germany treat their teachers much differently. Most notably, educators in these places are deeply respected and, therefore, are empowered to instruct as they see fit.

Today, many longtime preschool teachers are fed up with an academic curriculum that assumes all little kids are “standard” and evolve in the same way and at the same rate. They know how patently untrue it is as they’ve observed huge variations in the way kids develop. Therefore, they become deeply disturbed when required to instruct with a “one size fits all” approach that creates undue frustration and confusion for their students. One teacher sums it up for many when saying: “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.”

Veteran Teachers Know Better

When political leaders set policy for early childhood education, they expect to see measurable results in light of the money being spent. That means ongoing student assessments, more testing, and lots of structured academic activities instead of play. In other words, it’s the very opposite of what young learners need.

Some veteran teachers simply won’t go along with a system that suggests there’s something wrong with a 5-year-old who can’t sound out words, won’t still for long periods, and shows no interest in counting to 100 by 1’s, 5’s, and 10’s. They know such a child is behaving in a developmentally appropriate manner and is perfectly normal. They’d never want to needlessly worry a parent by suggesting it’s a cause of concern.

3. Parental Ignorance

Some parents, combining demanding careers with hectic family lives, have no time to read about issues in early childhood education. If they’re exposed to the subject at all, it’s usually the musings of a friend on Facebook or the views of an opinionated neighbor and not the expertise of a professional in the field. It’s this parental ignorance, though, that has caused some moms and dads to not only accept a push-down curriculum but embrace it.

Some ill-informed parents even boast when their preschoolers write in a workbook, learn phonics, and count to 100 in English, Spanish, and French. If their youngsters receive teacher-led lessons in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), they’re highly impressed. Unfortunately, these parents are woefully uninformed about the harmful effects of a push-down curriculum and the enormous benefits of play.

The Benefits of Play

This is what parents of preschoolers need to know about play:

  • Play is how children learn. It enhances language development, social skills, gross and fine motor acquisition, imagination, and creativity. According to renowned psychologist, Erik Erikson, those 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 8-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 long-term advantage over those who learn to read at 6, 7, or even older.

In this must-see TED Talk, Dr. Peter Gray explains why play is critical for the emotional, cognitive, and physical development of children and how too little of it can lead to mental health issues and societal problems.

What do you think?

© 2015 McKenna Meyers