Ms. Meyers is a former preschool and kindergarten teacher who holds a master's degree in special education and writes about early childhood.
Is Preschool Really Necessary?
- Do you think the primary goal of preschool is to prepare children for kindergarten?
- Do you believe that “earlier is better” when it comes to academic instruction?
- Do you think the current emphasis on academic learning in preschools is supported by research?
If you are nodding in agreement, you're one of many in our country who's bought into the false notion that early academic rigor results in smarter youngsters and a better society. While parents in other countries savor each stage of their children's development, moms and dads here seek to accelerate them. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in our nation's preschools, with their increasing academic focus and obsession with preparing kids for kindergarten.
Is Preschool Mandatory?
Attendance to preschool is increasing, but although it isn't mandatory in most places, parents seem to think it is. However, our ideal vision—children painting at easels, playing dress-up, riding tricycles, and digging for dinosaur fossils in a sandbox—is slowly fading away. In its place, we have academic preschools that reduce the once-broad scope of early childhood education to one goal: preparing youngsters for kindergarten. Large-minded objectives such as getting kids excited about learning, helping them build friendships, and promoting their wonder about the world around them have been eclipsed by narrow skills such as reciting the alphabet, writing numbers, knowing letter sounds, and counting to 100.
Should preschool be mandatory?
If you have tunnel vision for your children, then getting them ready for elementary school might be your main concern, and today's academic preschools might satisfy you just fine. However, if you have a long-range vision for your children and want to help them become healthy, creative, independent-minded, and well-adjusted individuals who will contribute to society, then today's academic preschools will leave you sorely disappointed.
In Defense of Play-Based Preschools
Before we lose something as precious and profound as our play-based preschools, experts in child development are doing their darnedest to sound the alarm. The best and brightest in the field are warning that academic preschools will result in youngsters who are less creative, less curious, and less capable of critical thinking. Not only will this have dire consequences for them as future employees, parents, and citizens, but it will also pose grave consequences for our democracy.
Recognizing this crisis in early childhood education, experts in the field have formed a coalition called Defending the Early Years. Their goal is to advocate for certain preschool practices that have been proven beneficial. These include play, exploration, hands-on learning, social interaction, sensory activities, and real-world experiences. Experts criticize current practices that are not developmentally appropriate and cause young children needless stress, confusion, and frustration: teacher-directed lessons, long circle times, paper-pencil tasks, assessments, rote memorization, technology, and standardized tests.
See this list of 33 Reasons Why Parents Should Choose a Play-Based Preschool, Not an Academic One for more information.
We have decades of research in child development and neuroscience that tell us that young children learn actively – they have to move, use their senses, get their hands on things, interact with other kids and teachers, create, invent.
— Professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige, child development expert and author.
Are There Benefits to Early Academics?
The group mission of Defending the Early Years is to inform parents of young children and the public at large about the importance of letting kids be kids. They want people to realize there's no benefit to early academics, but there are indeed many drawbacks.
The truth is that early academics might have the opposite effect: They may, in fact, cause children—especially boys—to eventually drop out of school, either mentally or physically. Lilian G. Katz, professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois explains:
"While early formal instruction may appear to show good test results at first, in the long term, in follow-up studies, such children have had no advantage. On the contrary, especially in the case of boys, subjection to early formal instruction increases their tendency to distance themselves from the goals of schools, and to drop out of it, either mentally or physically."
The Dangers of an Escalated Curriculum
America's preoccupation with speeding up learning has resulted in an escalated curriculum, meaning activities once reserved for older students are now used with younger ones.
The Problem With Escalated Curriculum
- While some parents are easily impressed by their children's early acquisition of academics, they're often woefully ignorant of the harm it does. The negative effects of an escalated curriculum, however, have been researched and documented by experts in early childhood education and include increased stress levels, higher incidences of aggressive behavior, acting out, and a particularly disturbing phenomenon: the expulsion of little children from preschool.
- An escalated curriculum asks young children to behave in ways that are unreasonable at their tender ages. When they're unable to do so—getting frustrated, acting defiant, and refusing to participate—they're labeled "troublemakers," "hyperactive," or "socially immature."
- In fact, three and four-year-olds in state-financed preschools are expelled at three times the national rate for K-12 students (boys much more so than girls, blacks more so than whites).
Read More From Wehavekids
We shouldn't be asking: What's wrong with these little kids at preschool? The appropriate question is: What's wrong with our preschools?
Bill Gates is wrong. American education is not 'broken.' Federal education policy is 'broken.' Testing children until they cry is a bad idea. It is educational malpractice.
— Professor Dianne Ravitch, historian of education and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education
The US Is Doing the Opposite of What Works
Finland is known across the globe for its outstanding education system, and other countries seek to duplicate its success. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) conducted a study in 2012 to assess the education systems in 50 countries, taking in consideration factors such as standardized test scores, literacy rates, and graduation rates. Finland ranked number one, while the US ranked 17th. You'd think, therefore, we'd be wise to follow Finland's lead in early childhood education but, no, we stubbornly insist on doing the very opposite.
- Eeva Penttila, head of international relations for Helsinki's educational department, says this about Finland's early education: "The focus...is to 'learn how to learn.' Instead of formal instruction in reading and math, there are lessons on nature, animals, and the 'circle of life' and a focus on materials-based learning." Sadly, in the US the concentration has shifted to narrow academic skills rather than developing the whole child—body, mind, and spirit—as they do in Finland.
- Children in Finland don't receive formal academic instruction until age 7. In the US, we now give structured lessons, assessments, and standardized tests to 4 and 5-year-olds at preschool. While Finland's preschools are child-centered with play, exploration, and hands-on learning, ours are adult-centered with long circle times, workbooks, calendar activities, and formal lessons in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
- Preschool teachers are esteemed in Finland, but not in the US, where they receive low pay and hold low social status. Preschool teachers in Finland have lots of autonomy, while those in the US have much less. US preschool teachers are increasingly constrained by the intense pressure to prepare children academically for kindergarten.
- Joy is the foundation for teaching young children in Finland. Their teachers have broad long-term goals: to promote enthusiastic life-long learners who can think for themselves, work well with others, use their imaginations, and solve problems in creative ways. Joy has been taken out of the equation at many preschools (especially publicly-funded ones) in the US, where children must score well on standardized tests and be academically ready for kindergarten.
If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.
— Dr. Peter Gray, psychologist, research professor, and author
Preschools Doing More Harm Than Good
Unfortunately, the US can no longer guarantee the bare minimum in early childhood education: Do no harm! Preschools are now doing lots of things that hurt children's love of learning, squash their innate desire to explore and play and stunt their budding creativity. There's no doubt that in the US, children in poor socio-economic circumstances are hurt more profoundly by the new obsession with early academics than those in wealthier areas.
Nancy Carlsson-Paige writes:
"Sadly, the worst of the restrictive, standardized, drill-based education is happening in our poorest communities. More often the teachers in these underfunded schools have less training. They are more dependent on the standardized tests and scripted curricula and more willing to impose them. These teachers haven’t learned what they could do instead of the drills and tests, and they haven’t learned how harmful these approaches are for kids.
I wish you could see the faces of kids in the low-income communities I visited this year. They are scared, sad, and alienated. I see on them an expression that says, 'School is not fun, and it is not for me. I want out of here.'"
Here's a list of 10 Warning Signs of a Bad Preschool you might find useful.
Childhood is not a race to see how quickly a child can read, write, and count. Childhood is a small window of time to develop at the pace which is right for each individual child.
In the US today, we've tried to silence those who've spent a lifetime working with and studying young children. We've pushed common sense to the side and replaced it with fear—fear our children won't be smart enough, fear they won't succeed at school, fear they won't get good-paying jobs. We've let these worries overcome us, stopping us from doing what's best for our youngest, most vulnerable learners.
But, luckily, the experts' voices can still be heard. In his article The Decline of Play and Rise in Children's Mental Disorders, Dr. Peter Gray makes it crystal clear that our kids and society are paying a high price for early academics. He links the increasing rates of depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide among our children and teens to a decline in free play and exploration.
With too many teacher-directed lessons and not enough opportunities for kids to be kids, our young people are experiencing a loss of control which, in turn, makes them feel down and disheartened.
Preschoolers in Finland are fortunate to have adult leadership that advocates for joyful learning. Sadly, our preschoolers in the US don't, and their joy is eroding, creating long-term problems for them and for our society...but, at least, they can count to 100.
Questions & Answers
Question: How do we prepare for kindergarten if our child does not attend Pre-K?
Answer: You have the power to make learning fun and interesting for your child by tapping into her curiosities. Instead of enduring a month-long unit on dinosaurs or planets (for which she has no passion), you can focus on what intrigues her, whether it's dogs, cooking, making vehicles, or rainforests. She'll have plenty of time for a standard curriculum in the years ahead, but early childhood education needs to be individualized. All learning should stem from her interests in an organic way.
Reading books about what interests her will make all the difference in the world. Good reading involves "scaffolding," finding out what she already knows on the topic and building from there. Unlike a preschool teacher with 20 kids, you can stop during reading and ask her questions, see if she's comprehending, and relate what you read to her own life experiences. That's so powerful compared to kids sitting criss-cross applesauce and zoning out while the teacher reads!
Of course, real-world experiences are best for productive learning. Taking your child to the market introduces her to so much as she counts apples into a bag and weighs them on a scale. She can investigate the different varieties of apples, and you can make apple juice, apple pie, or caramel apples. The possibilities are endless.
Preschool learning has become so narrow because parents want their kids prepared for kindergarten. This is truly tragic because preschool should be expanding their world and preparing them for life. There's no long-term advantage to the academic rigor we're imposing on young children. There are only negatives: less creativity, less critical thinking, and more depression, anxiety, and suicide.
I hope that parents will see the folly in our country's preoccupation to prepare preschoolers for kindergarten. Research shows the early years should be about play, exploration, communication, and socialization, not workbooks, circle times, and teacher-directed lessons.
Question: How does early education make children do poorly in school later in life?
Answer: A preschool education hurts children at school (and in life) when the scope of instruction is too narrow and the goals too limiting. A good preschool is all about expanding the child's universe through play, hands-on learning, exploration, and socializing. A good preschool teacher wants her students to get energized about learning, knowing it comes from their own curiosity and is not spoon-fed to them by an adult.
Unfortunately, play-based preschools are dwindling. Because of the academic rigor in the primary grades, parents want their kids prepared for kindergarten. This preparation includes writing in workbooks, sitting still for long teacher-directed lessons, learning letter names and sounds, and learning how to count and recognize numerals. There is no evidence that teaching these skills early has any long-term benefit. There is evidence, however, that it causes stress and turns kids off to school. We are seeing higher rates of depression and anxiety among children and the lack of play in early years is one likely culprit.
Parents and teachers need to look at the big picture of education so kids will become life-long learners, knowing how to think critically, work cooperatively, and solve problems in creative ways. These are all more important than knowing that "t" makes the "tuh" sound.
Question: Will this preschool situation get fixed if most parents start complaining about preschool?
Answer: Without a doubt, parents are the solution to the current problem of academic preschools in the United States and should let their voices be heard. They are the consumers and wield all the power. When they decide to finally take a stand for developmentally appropriate practices (children learning through play, social interaction, and hands-on materials), preschool directors will take notice and change. Preschool directors already know that academic preschools are misguided and go against everything taught in early child education classes. They want to stay in business, though, so they offer what parents are seeking—namely, academic preparation for kindergarten.
Parents today seek academic preschools out of fear. They're worried their children will suffer if they don't attend a preschool that prepares them for kindergarten. Other moms and dads warn them that kindergarten is now what first grade used to be and that many kids begin the school year already knowing how to write their names, count to 100, and recognize the letters and sounds of the alphabet. Parents get scared that their youngster will be placed in the low reading group in kindergarten, feel dumb, and struggle with low self-esteem. While their concerns are not unwarranted, it's never wise to parent out of fear. Good decisions are based on intellect, not emotion.
Most smart and well-informed parents know that a preschool should be play-based. They know it should be about making friends, learning social skills, and discovering the power of team work. They know it should be about curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking and not ABC's, patterns, number recognition, teacher-directed lessons, and workbooks.
Today, though, it takes strong and determined parents to go against the tide of academic preschools and not worry about keeping up with the Joneses who send their kid to a preschool that teaches Mandarin, computer science, and yoga. They must reject what everyone else is doing and chart their own course. They might do this by sending their children to a play-based preschool, doing home-schooling, or setting up regular play dates with like-minded parents. They need to relax about getting their child prepared academically for kindergarten and look at the big picture—getting their child excited about learning.
Thanks so much for your question. Parents in the United States are unique in their desire to have their children grow up so fast and learn so much at an early age. In other countries such as Germany, their preschools and kindergartens emphasize unstructured play. Academics aren't introduced until first grade. Their approach is a lot more respectful of children and how they develop. Hopefully, we'll soon return to that!
Question: Don't you think that all poll questions asked are equally true?
Answer: I think all three poll questions are true, but I favor the second answer (intense pressure for children to succeed academically) like the majority of voters. It's said that when we wake up in the morning, each one of us is confronted with this fundamental question: Will I approach this day with love or fear? The United States has chosen to approach early childhood education with fear while other countries such as Finland have chosen to approach it with love.
The United States and Finland have the same long-established research in early childhood education at their disposal: that preschoolers learn best through playing, interacting with peers, doing hands-on activities, and following their unique interests and curiosities. While Finland embraces this research and uses it as the foundation for their preschools and kindergartens, we do not.
We go against the research because we're acting out of fear—fear that our children will not succeed unless they're force-fed early academics. This collective fear is irrational, not grounded in reality, and isn't swayed by decades of research to the contrary. It's another sad example of the anti-intellectualism/anti-research/anti-knowledge bent that has taken hold in our nation of late.
When I talk to parents of preschoolers, most of them say they'd like their kids to play, explore, and socialize at school. However, they're afraid that this will result in their children being unprepared for kindergarten and not being able to compete with their peers. Because of Common Core and other legislation (with no input from experts in early childhood education), the “big picture” of preschool has been reduced to simply getting kids academically ready for kindergarten.
Parents' biggest fear seems to be that their youngster will wind up in the “low” reading group in kindergarten. They're willing to sacrifice what's best for their kids and have them subjected to pre-reading, math, and handwriting in preschool rather than play. I know we'll return to play-based preschools in the United States someday because the research supports it. I hope it's soon.
Question: What do you think of parent-teacher co-ops for preschool?
Answer: A co-op preschool typically has one paid employee, the teacher, and a handful of parent volunteers who run the activity stations. The parent helpers take turns working at the preschool (typically 1-2 days per month) as a requirement for their child's attendance. There is a parent board (elected by the other moms and dads) that makes decisions on school policy such as the cost of tuition, food choices for snack time, fundraising efforts, and upkeep of the facility. The teacher makes the day-to-day classroom decisions: curriculum, discipline, daily schedule, and field trips.
The advantages of a co-op preschool are numerous: the incredibly low adult to student ratio (something like 1 to 5), the commitment of like-minded parents who believe their involvement makes a huge impact in their children's education, the multitude of activities the kids get to experience each day, and the low cost compared to other programs. A co-op preschool is both democratic and transparent. It's an ideal place for moms and dads who want to meet other parents, set up play dates, and be involved in a tight-knit community. The primary disadvantage is that belonging to a co-op preschool is quite challenging for working parents unless they're self-employed or have extremely flexible bosses.
In my current position, I visit dozens of early childhood education facilities each year, and I'm most impressed by the co-op preschools.
The youngsters get a wide-range of experiences that are fun and developmentally appropriate because of the parent helpers. Children aren't cruelly subjected to practices that are designed for older kids such as writing in workbooks, sitting still for long circle times, and listening to boring lessons about the calendar and weather. They're constantly moving, playing, pretending, interacting, exploring, and communicating.
At the co-op preschool, I visited last week, there was one parent who supervised outside while kids pedaled their tricycles and splashed at the water table. There was a second parent who assisted with the children painting at the easels. A third parent worked at the “sensory table” as youngsters explored a tub of cold colored spaghetti. A fourth parent helped with kids in the play kitchen, and a fifth was in charge of a group that was building with little hammers, nails, and pieces of wood. The teacher walked throughout the school, talking to the kids, asking them questions, and making sure everything was running smoothly. Everyone child was fully engaged, happy, and productive. It was what I would hope for every preschooler.
I have an article called “Why Parent Should Choose a Preschool With a Strong Philosophy: Montessori, Waldorf, or Co-Op” (https://hubpages.com/education/Montessori-Waldorf-... that you may find helpful.
Question: What can I do to change the preschool system?
Answer: I could tell you to write your state and national representatives, but I have done that myself with disappointing results—not even receiving a lousy form letter in response. The fact of the matter is most of our politicians know little or nothing about early childhood education, and it's certainly not a priority for them. Their ignorance on the subject is one of the reasons why we're in this mess in the first place. In their minds, academic rigor sounds good in 12 grade, 8th grade, 4th grade, and preschool with no distinction. They are clueless about the devastating effects a lack of play, creativity, and socialization in the early years has on young people and society.
With that pessimistic message out of the way, I'm happy to say that the most effective way to help preschoolers is getting involved with the fantastic organization called “Defending the Early Years.” On their excellent website https://www.deyproject.org/, you can join their e-mail list, sign up for updates, and make a tax-deductible donation. There are wonderful articles written by leaders in the movement such as Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Page and Dr. Diane Levin, who advocate for play-based preschools and developmentally appropriate practices. There's information on how you can get involved.
“Defending the Early Years” informs you of the issues and research in early childhood education so you'll feel confident about communicating them to others and becoming an advocate yourself. There are so many misconceptions that parents and the public at large hold that need to be set straight. Many misguided folks believe that kids today are smarter than ever before because of early academic rigor and technology. They don't realize that the decrease in play during the early years corresponds to the rise in serious health issues among children and teens: depression, anxiety, obesity, suicide, and narcissism. They don't realize the decline in creative and critical thinking.
Question: How does preschool cause a child to have a bad attitude towards education later in life?
Answer: Career experts agree that it's imperative for workers of the future see themselves as life-long learners; always acquiring new skills and new information as the world around them changes rapidly. Unlike our parents and grandparents, they won't be staying in the same job for fifty years and receiving a gold watch upon retirement. They'll move from job to job, learning to adapt and getting new training. Now, more than ever, it's important that children develop a love of learning at an early age, because they'll need to continue learning throughout their lives.
Preschool should be an empowering experience for children as they construct their learning and let curiosity be their guide. If they feel helpless at school (sitting still as the teacher talks, writing in workbooks, learning about things that have little meaning to them such as numerals and letters), they'll develop a bad at