Ms. Meyers is a long-time preschool and kindergarten teacher who writes about issues in early childhood education and advocates for play.
Play-Based Preschool Means Happier, Healthier Kids
- Did you know play-based preschools promote the deepest kind of learning by encouraging kids to become self-directed learners who explore, develop curiosity, and solve their own problems?
- Did you know that what's taught at academic preschools often involves the most superficial kind of learning that inhibits initiative and independence?
- That we have decades of research in developmental psychology that shows play is the most effective way for young children to learn, develop social skills, and regulate their emotions?
- Among children and teens, play has decreased dramatically during the past 50 to 60 years with a corresponding increase in depression, anxiety, and suicide?
- Researchers have linked a lack of play to increased narcissism and decreased empathy in young people?
If you're surprised by these facts, you probably bought into the "earlier is better" obsession that reigns supreme in US preschool and elementary schools today. Parental anxiety is at an all-time high as parents push to get their children academically prepared for kindergarten. As a result, preschools have become less about play, creativity, and socialization and more about pre-reading skills, long circle times, and teacher-focused lessons. The impact on kids is devastating.
Benefits of Play-Based Learning
Below, you'll find the overarching benefits of sending a child to a play-based (rather than academic) preschool. Play-based schools encourage the development of the following skills:
- Imagination (to inspire increased engagement, independent learning, creativity, hands-on learning, vocabulary enrichment, and expanded perspectives)
- Language Development and Vocabulary Skills (learned through increased self-awareness, communication skills, shared expertise, social engagement, and bilingual opportunities)
- Social Skills (etiquette, independent problem-solving, empathy development, less exposure to negative aspects of technology, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution skills, and the foundational skills for academics)
- Emotional Development (self-soothing mechanisms, the benefits of roleplaying, emotional skills, expression, and outlet, personal empowerment, emotional preparedness and flexibility, and balance)
- Math and Spatial Understanding (spatial awareness, foundational vocabulary for math, real-world applications, the perception that math is fun, developmentally appropriate education, and foundational concepts)
The individual and specific skills a child learns through play are explored in detail below.
33 Benefits of a Play-Based Curriculum
- Increased Engagement. It was once thought only children with special needs such as autism required help with learning how to play. Now, though, early childhood experts believe all kids benefit from it. Good teachers help kids plan their play and extend it for days to come.
- Independent Learning. Today, busy parents over-program their youngsters with structured activities (music lessons, sports teams, dance classes, etc.) and allow far too much screen time. Young children have little opportunity to play without adult interference. For many of them, preschool is the only place where they can use their imaginations while interacting with peers.
- Creativity and Imagination. Sadly, kindergarten is no longer a place where play and imagination are encouraged. Many classrooms are void of toys and dramatic play areas. Children now spend time doing highly structured activities such as reading groups, math centers, and workbooks. This makes it even more crucial that preschools are creative environments where kids have a say in what activities they wish to do.
- Hands-On Learning. Many scholars in early childhood education believe a preschool teacher's most important function is to facilitate play. As children spend more time with technology, it's critical that they have opportunities at preschool to build their imaginations instead of getting spoon-fed information.
- Rich Vocabularies. Recent studies show that preschool teachers can help children reach higher levels of make-believe play that bolster their imaginations, build their vocabularies, and enhance their social skills. They can set up dramatic play areas in their classrooms (a post office, hair salon, pet store, market, dentist's office, or airport) to stimulate children's creative thinking and enrich their conversations.
- Expanded Perspectives. A skilled teacher asks questions to promote dramatic play. For example, if the children are pretending to work at a hospital, she might ask: “What role do you want—nurse, doctor, patient, or visitor? What will you use for the operating room, the waiting room, and the therapy room? How will you continue play tomorrow?"
- Self-Awareness. Lawrence K. Frank, an expert in human development, said this about the value of play: “Play...is the way the child learns what no one can teach him. It is the way he explores and orients himself to the actual world of space and time, of things, animals, structures, and people. Through play the child practices and rehearses endlessly the complicated and subtle patterns of human living and communication which he must master if he is to become a participating adult in our social life.”
- Language Skills. Play is the most effective way to promote language skills (using proper tone of voice, eye contact, facial cues, hand gestures, body language) and build vocabulary. For example when they play hospital, children share and discover new words to use (from one another as well as the teacher) such as emergency, operation, surgeon, fever, stitches, and concussion.
- Shared Expertise. A youngster with more real-world experience and a more advanced vocabulary of terms teaches those new words to other children in a natural and fun way through play. A child whose mother is a doctor becomes the expert in the hospital scenario. A youngster whose dad works in construction gets his turn to shine when the scenario involves a building site.
- Social Engagement. When children are toddlers, they engage in parallel play—playing near one another but not with one another. When they're 3 and 4-year-olds at preschool, they're just beginning to interact with friends and are eager to talk. Limiting their conversations by having them sit still for long periods at circle time is counterproductive.
- Communication and Conversation Skills. When children are playing at preschool, they develop the fine art of conversation. They learn how to take turns, negotiate, state their argument, and defend their point of view. They discover that words can be powerful tools when working with others toward a shared goal.
- Bilingual Opportunities. Play gives children an opportunity to develop language in a fun and meaningful way. For youngsters who aren't native speakers, it's a time to speak in their new language without feeling pressured or scrutinized. It also gives them time to speak in their first language so they don't lose their bilingualism.
In this must-see video, a researcher links the increase in anxiety and depression among children to the decline of play.
13. People Skills and Etiquette. Because they've only recently transitioned from parallel play to group play, preschoolers need lots of time to practice their social abilities such as sharing, taking turns, and listening. These are all the people skills that will come in handy during their entire lives.
14. Independent Problem-Solving. Playing together is the best way for children to learn how to solve their own problems. An astute teacher knows how to stand back and watch, letting the kids maneuver these new social situations and intervening only when necessary.
15. Empathy. According to experts in early childhood education, children need to develop empathy—the ability to see things from someone else's viewpoint—before they can truly share. This happens around age 6, says author and pediatrician Dr. William Sears. Before that time, playing with one another—cooperating and working toward a shared goal—helps them appreciate the value of sharing and sets the foundation for empathy.
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16. Less Exposure to Models of Aggression and Violence. Some early childhood experts, such as Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, fear that youngsters are losing their imaginations (and their innocence) because they're bombarded with mass-media images. She writes,“Today, children commonly imitate in play what they have seen in movies, video games, and other electronic media as well as TV, and use media-linked toys that further encourage replication of what's been seen on the screen. And often what children imitate are the models of aggression and violence seen on the screen.”
17. Emotional Intelligence. Employers today seek workers with emotional intelligence (EI). People with strong EI know how to build positive relationships, resolve conflicts, and manage their emotions. They're self-aware and empathetic. Children learn these skills during the early years of life when they're given opportunities to play with one another.
18. Conflict Resolution Skills. It's inevitable that conflicts arise when children play at preschool. If they cannot resolve the problem on their own, it gives the teacher a wonderful opportunity to intervene. She can help the kids develop the necessary social and emotional skills to handle the dispute. This is a far more important role than leading the group at circle time, reading books, or teaching about colors.
19. The Foundational Skills for Academics. A child's social skills in the early years are a significant indicator of future school success. Youngsters who show antisocial behavior drop out of high school at higher rates.
In this video, Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige discusses the negative impact of academic preschools.
20. Self-Soothing Mechanisms. According to child psychologists, play is the way kids make sense of the world. When they become frightened, confused, or stressed, they use play as a way to soothe themselves and come to terms with the situation.
21. The Psychological Benefits of Roleplaying. Children use dramatic play in preschool to comfort themselves after a traumatic experience. A youngster who went to the doctor and got a shot may re-create that scenario again and again as she pretends she's a doctor giving shots to friends.
22. Emotional Skills. In dramatic play, children can express a wide range of emotions (anger, sorrow, joy) that are not always acceptable in everyday life. Since they control the scenario, they feel powerful about handling these intense feelings.
23. Emotional Expression and Outlet. When playing house at school, children can work through their own family stresses. A youngster whose parents are divorcing can bring that into the play, explaining to his friends that some moms and dads don't get along and need to live apart. A kid who has a new sibling may want to create a scenario where there's a crying baby who needs a diaper change.
24. Personal Empowerment. Sigmund Freud spoke about play and how it can empower youngsters. He said every child at play “behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him.”
25. Emotional Preparedness and Flexibility. Children reach a state of equilibrium when playing. This gives them the emotional and mental readiness to tackle new and challenging tasks at school.
26. Practice With Conflict. Children will inevitably experience conflicts while playing and this is a good thing. It gives them the opportunity to deal with their feelings of anger and frustration. They learn how to regulate their emotions and settle their disputes so the fun can continue.
27. Balance. In many US preschools today, we stress academic learning and structured activities over free play. Not coincidentally, we now see a huge increase in emotional disorders in children. This is a high price to pay for early academic achievement that's largely meaningless.
28. Spatial Awareness. A recent study showed that young children who play with puzzles have better spatial skills. They're able to think about objects in three dimensions and draw conclusions about them, even with limited information. This is helpful when reading a map, interpreting diagrams and charts, and building sound structures (as learned with with blocks and LEGOS). Spatial awareness an important ability in math, science, and technology.
29. The Foundational Concepts of Math. Playing with blocks on the rug at preschool is the ideal way for kids to learn about math in a fun and natural way. By building and talking, kids learn concepts such as shape and size, area, measurement, and geometry.
30. Real-World Applications. When children engage in dramatic play—running a grocery store, beauty salon, or restaurant—they learn about math. They discover how to use a cash register, recognize coins and bills, give change, and set prices.
31. The Perception That Math Is Fun. Math at preschool is best learned through play, not teacher-directed lessons, calendar activities, or counting games. Math concepts get introduced through materials such as puzzles, blocks, Geo-boards, Unifix cubes, beads, and LEGOS.
32. Developmentally Appropriate Education. Much of math education at preschool—calendar activities, counting to 100, writing numerals—is not only meaningless to young children, it is developmentally inappropriate. Youngsters learn math concepts best through dramatic play and hands-on activities.
33. Foundational Vocabularies for Math. Children discuss valuable math concepts in a meaningful way during play. When children pretend to cook in the kitchen area, they talk about sequencing (first, get a bowl and spoon), fractions (I need half a stick of butter), measurements (pour in 2 cups of milk), and counting (beat in four eggs).
In this video, we learn about the infinite learning that takes place with block play.
What Happens If Kids Don't Play?
Like so many in the field of early childhood education, I worry about the erosion of play in our children's lives as technology takes up more space in their heads and fills up more hours in their days. During my final five years of teaching preschool, I witnessed a new and disturbing phenomenon that troubled me then and continues to haunt me now: 4 and 5-year-old youngsters who didn't know how to engage in dramatic play!
What kids once did so magnificently and naturally—using their imaginations and pretending to be firefighters, chefs, doctors, veterinarians, and superheroes—is now out of grasp for many of them. Without a doubt, this loss of creativity will have profound negative consequences for these youngsters and for society as a whole. Other countries esteem play-based preschools, valuing their long-range benefits of fostering independent and self-motivated learners. Sadly, we in the US are extremely shortsighted, sending our youngsters to academic preschools so they'll be prepared for kindergarten.
Did you attend a play-based preschool as a child?
A Simple Set of Blocks Teaches So Much About Math
What preschool programs have play-based learning philosophies?
Popular preschool programs with play-based learning philosophies are Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, forest schools, and co-ops. While each one is unique in its approach, they share a common belief that children learn best by interacting with their surroundings in a joyful, developmentally-appropriate way.
Montessori allows for long blocks of time for children to explore materials without interruption. Waldorf emphasizes real life experiences such as cooking, baking, gardening, and knitting. Reggio Emilia emphasizes learning that stems from children's innate curiosity. Forest schools embrace the outdoors as the ideal place for youngsters to investigate. Co-ops celebrate the innumerable ways to inspire creativity and imagination in kids when parents help facilitate it.
For more information on preschool programs with play-based philosophies, read: “Montessori, Waldorf, & Co-op: Why Philosophy Matters at Preschool.” https://wehavekids.com/education/Montessori-Waldorf-Co-op-What-Preschool-Is-Right-for-Your-Child
What preschool programs aren't play-based?
Today, we're seeing the rise of so-called transitional kindergartens at school districts across the nation. Sadly, they're not play-based. Many of them are conducted in classrooms that are too small, aren't properly equipped with materials, provide few opportunities for pretend play, and have no designated outdoor space. They have no philosophy at all but just a goal to prepare students academically for kindergarten. Some school districts hire teachers from within their own ranks to teach these classes—educators with K-5 teaching credentials but no background or degree in early childhood education.
Where can I find a play-based preschool near me?
Before beginning your local search, I strongly suggest you do some reading on the sites of two highly respected organizations that advocate for play-based learning. One is the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) https://www.naeyc.org/ and the other is Defending the Early Years (DEY) https://dey.org/#
After gaining a firm understanding of what constitutes play-based learning and why play matters so much in early childhood, search online for preschools near your home. Focus on Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, co-ops, and forest schools. Set up appointments to visit a few during their normal school day. This will give you a true sense of what their programs are like and whether or not they're a good fit for you and your child.
Ask friends, neighbors, and other parents in your community for their recommendations. Be wary of moms and dads, though, who believe that preparing a child academically for kindergarten should be the primary aim. Any parent who supports play-based learning understands that its benefits (promoting curiosity, independence, initiative, and a love of acquiring knowledge) are lifetime goals, not just goals for the next school year.
Questions & Answers
Question: Do you allow reprints? I would like to reprint this article in my daughter's preschool newsletter.
Answer: I would love for you to share this article because it's a topic for which I have a lot of passion. I think many parents are clueless about the detrimental effects from too little play. It would be great if you could use the link https://wehavekids.com/education/Preschoolers-Lear...
I get paid from the clicks. Also, I love the videos there and think parents would benefit from seeing them, especially Dr. Peter Gray's TED Talk about the rise of mental illness and the decrease in play.
Question: My son's preschool has a learning through play approach. Is "learning through play" the same as a play-based preschool?
Answer: No, it's not. Almost all preschool directors give lip service to the idea that children learn through play (if they don't, they're ridiculously uninformed about the research in early childhood education). Many of their programs, though, are highly structured and academic with long circle times, teacher-directed lessons, paper-pencil tasks, rote learning, and very little time set aside for play.
Sadly, many programs that tout learning through play are actually very adult-centered. The teachers have a full agenda, act as the ringleaders, are seen as the source of all knowledge, and are the ones who establish the curriculum. Instead of capitalizing on the children's unique interests, they have preordained units about weather, authors, pets, manners, planets, and so on. The school's philosophy and curriculum don't recognize play as the foundation for all early learning but just one ingredient.
Conversely, a play-based preschool is highly child-centered. The youngsters themselves determine what they want to do, what they want to explore, and how they will use their time, their imaginations, and their curiosities. Their learning is determined by them, not by adults. This makes it all the more personal and, thus, powerful.
While a teacher's presence isn't overwhelming in a play-based preschool, she still has a definite plan and has set up the classroom and activities to enhance play, curiosity, and socialization. Kids have plenty of opportunities to use their imaginations, develop their language skills, build their vocabularies, and practice sharing, cooperating, and interacting. She's devised dramatic play centers where kids can pretend to be veterinarians, chefs, architects, and engineers. She has a puppet theater and stage where kids can perform. She has loads of art supplies and sensory bins where kids can create and explore. She has a lot going on outside so children can reap the health benefits of being in nature.
In a play-based program, the teacher is extremely respectful of the children's play. She knows it promotes the skills necessary for reading, writing, and math. She's constantly circulating throughout the classroom and facilitating play. She sees it as her most important role as a teacher of young children. You may even join in to optimize the children's play experiences when she sees a need and then vanish so the kids can continue without adult intervention.
You may want to read my article entitled, “5 Things Children Learn at Preschool That Are a Waste of Time and Not Developmentally Appropriate.”
Question: I loved the article, including the idea of having a " block party". Can you provide more information on where I can find out more about this in an effort to set up a meaningful block party experience for families?
Answer: I'm so happy that you're inspired by the block party and want to host one for families. Here's a link to a video on YouTube of a block party in progress. It shows how they set up the classroom, the various kinds of blocks they had, and the different materials they used: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lURQpfBqe9g&t=...
While teaching preschool, I hosted several block parties and they were big hits with both kids and parents. The first one I did was a celebration of play and included putting together puzzles, doing finger painting, creating with play-dough as well as building with blocks. I found it to be too much so I simplified it to just blocks the next year. That was much easier and more successful and I liked that the spotlight shone exclusively on block play.
I made poster-boards like the ones that they show in the video, explaining what the parents and kids were gaining from the experience: increasing vocabulary, learning measurement, enhancing communication skills, building teamwork. It was eye-opening for moms and dads as they realized how much block play contributes to their child's social and cognitive development.
Before the event, many of them didn't appreciate that blocks are the ideal STEM toy for young children. Parents who had never considered buying them for their daughters were inspired to do so. Some were motivated to set up play dates for their kids that would feature block play.
The schools in Indiana are big supporters of block parties. If you e-mail a school district there, they may send you more detailed information on hosting an event.
Question: Is HighScope considered play-based?
Answer: No. HighScope is academic, structured, and teacher-directed. It stresses school readiness in reading, math, and science. It embraces a learn-by-doing approach and, while not wholly play-based and child-centered, it includes elements of both.
A feature that's unique to HighScope is “play-do-review.” During small group time, children plan what they will do during “work time:” what area of the classroom to visit, what materials to use, and with whom to interact. After work time, the group gets back together and reviews what they did and what they learned. This gives them autonomy in their choices, allows them to pursue their interests, and builds their vocabularies.
While many moms and dads in the United States know about Montessori, Waldorf, and play-based co-ops, most parents here are not familiar with HighScope. They don't recognize it as the approach that's used at many of our Headstart centers. Headstart, a government program for low-income families, mandates that teachers assess preschoolers and record the results. Because Highscope aims for academic results that are measurable, it's a good fit for Headstart.
Question: How do we know if it’s play-based? We’re looking at a Montessori program. Would that be considered play? Waldorf? I love this article, but unsure what to do next.
Answer: You're on the right track by looking at preschools with strong philosophies (Montessori, Waldorf, and play-based). As someone who's taught at several preschools and visited dozens more, I'd say this is the single most crucial element for finding a fun, creative, stimulating, and loving environment for your child. A strong philosophy is everything in today's climate as too many preschools have been reduced to just one thing: preparing kids academically for kindergarten.
Because of Common Core and pressure from anxious (but uninformed) parents, some preschool directors are now offering highly structured programs that are adult-centered and academic. They may give lip service to the notion that children learn through play, but the school day doesn't reflect that with long circle times, paper-pencil tasks, and teacher-led activities. Preschool directors with a strong philosophy won't kowtow to what's trendy. They won't cave in to what old male politicians in Washington D. C. with no background in early childhood education demand.
Sadly, some school districts now have so-called “transitional kindergarten” to prepare kids for kindergarten. Some of the teachers come from k-12 education and have no background in early childhood education and no knowledge about the value of play. We in the United States insist on doing more of the wrong thing. Then we wonder why it doesn't work and why more children and teens are suffering from anxiety, depression, and narcissism.
While Montessori is not the same as a play-based preschool, they are similar in many fundamental ways. Most significantly, they're both child-centered. The youngsters choose their own activities and their learning comes from their experiences. The teacher is not front-and-center, imparting information to the group and being seen as the source of all knowledge. With Montessori and play-based preschools, there's no one-size-fits-all curriculum. Children's unique interests and curiosities guide what they learn.
The biggest difference between the two is that Montessori children learn more through concrete materials while play-based children learn more through their imaginations at dramatic play centers. You may want to read my article entitled, “Why Parents Should Choose a Preschool With a Strong Philosophy. “
I write about Montessori, Waldorf, and play-based co-ops and why they are all wonderful because of their strong philosophies. At this point, you need to figure out what program will work best for your child and your family as a whole. In the article, I explain how I picked an absolutely fantastic play-based co-op for my son, but it proved to be a poor fit for him and Montessori would have been better.
This is an exciting time for you and your child. It's really a beautiful thing when you choose a preschool with a strong philosophy and enjoy the many benefits of being around moms and dads with similar beliefs and parenting styles. I've known many parents who've sent their children to Waldorf schools for preschool and beyond and would never consider doing anything else. Thanks for your question!
Question: Could you please give me your thoughts and input about the Montessori philosophy? I am strongly considering this for my son’s preschool and elementary because they seem to teach everything through play and independence.
Answer: You're fortunate to live in a town that offers Montessori for both preschool and elementary. It's such a beautiful philosophy and a shame that it's only offered for very young children in most places. Today, when preschools and kindergartens are too academic, too structured, and too adult-centered, Montessori offers a refreshing alternative. Best of all, it's child-centered and supported by decades of research in early childhood education.
Montessori will take you and your youngster on a less-traveled path, and that's a good thing with our current emphasis on Common Core, standardized testing, assessments, and early reading. Unlike many educators today, the Montessori teacher is not a taskmaster who's brow-beating or bribing students to pay attention, complete their assignments, and memorize information for tests.
The Montessori philosophy embraces the big picture: encouraging creative, curious, motivated, and emotionally well-adjusted youngsters who love to learn, explore, and discover by themselves. Maria Montessori summed it up perfectly with these words: “The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, 'The children are now working as if I did not exist.'”
One of the biggest benefits of a child attending Montessori is being surrounded by teachers, parents, and kids who share a common philosophy. That builds a strong sense of cooperation and community that's rare at schools today. It makes everyone feel involved and invested and studies show how vital that is to a positive learning environment.
You may want to read my article titled, “Why Parents Should Choose a Preschool With a Strong Philosophy.”
Question: How did we get to this point where we need to defend play for little kids? How can adults be so cruel to prevent kids from being kids?
Answer: To answer your question, we must look at what's happening in society today as a whole, not just in early childhood education. Unfortunately, we're at a dangerous point when the words of experts are no longer held in high esteem. The author, Tom Nichols, has tackled this critical issue in "The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters."
With a plethora of reading materials at our fingertips, everyone now feels haughtily well-informed, even when their knowledge lacks depth. TV personality, Jenny McCarthy, dispenses advice on childhood vaccinations. Political pundits explain the complex science of climate change. Software developer and philanthropist, Bill Gates, lectures on what we need to do to improve our educational system. None of them is an expert in these areas but are more than willing to act like one.
We have many brilliant scholars in early childhood education who advocate for play. Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Dr. Diane Levin are just two. Their voices, however, aren't heard by the masses. Instead, the loudest sounds now come from non-experts: moms and dads who share their opinions on Facebook and other social media sites.
Sadly, the overriding message that they're disseminating is one of angst. They express their fears that bad things will happen to kids who aren't academically prepared for kindergarten. They'll be placed in the low reading group. They'll be behind their peers. Their self-esteem will be damaged.
Because of the Common Core standards at elementary schools, many parents no longer see preschool as separate, special, and magical. In their minds, it's just the preparation ground for kindergarten. This sentiment is becoming even more pervasive as so-called “transitional kindergartens” open at more and more elementary schools across the nation.
The good news is that parents can easily change what's happening by demanding play in early childhood education. Every preschool in the US should be a place where kids have what they need to be happy and well-adjusted, develop strong social skills, and become confident and eager learners. The materials needed aren't pencils, workbooks, computers, and desks. They're easels, dramatic play areas, tricycles, a puppet theater, a performing stage, a sandbox, a dollhouse, wooden blocks, play-dough, and lots of art materials.
You may want to read my article entitled: “5 Things Children Do at Preschool That Are a Waste of Time.” https://wehavekids.com/education/Choosing-a-Presch...
Question: My granddaughter attends transitional kindergarten at public school. She cries each morning before leaving the house. My daughter insists that she go. What should I do?
Answer: I'm sorry that your granddaughter is unhappy at transitional kindergarten but not surprised. I'd be interested to know if her teacher has a background in early childhood education. If not, that may explain why your granddaughter isn't enjoying the experience, feels stressed out, and doesn't want to attend class.
Unfortunately, some school districts only hire those from within their own ranks to teach transitional kindergarten. They're equipped with K-5 teaching credentials but not degrees or units in early childhood education. Sadly, they don't appreciate how critical it is to follow developmentally appropriate practices. As a result, some kids feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and turned off to learning rather than energized by it.
Moreover, classrooms for transitional kindergartens are often too small and lack the necessary art materials, math manipulatives, and pretend play areas. Some of them have no designated outdoor space suitable for little ones with a sandbox, tricycles, easels, and such. It's no wonder little kids are unhappy there.
In addition to lacking qualified teachers, big, open areas for play, and age-appropriate materials, some transitional kindergartens have no teaching philosophy that guides their practices. Instead, they just have a singular goal: to prepare kids academically for kindergarten. Their teachers were hired to do that by emphasizing the alphabet, phonics, numbers, and patterns. They aim to get kids sitting quietly for circle time and stories.
This makes for a teacher-centered classroom, not a child-centered one. Little kids are wired to learn by doing and are motivated by their innate curiosity. To do anything to stifle that is truly tragic.
Unfortunately, parents like your daughter are being told that their children must attend transitional kindergarten in order to be prepared for kindergarten. If you tried to convince your daughter that preschoolers need to play, she'd probably just think you're old-fashioned and don't know what's expected of kids today. It takes a strong, confident, and well-informed parent to ignore the “earlier is better” chatter and do what's right for their kid.
You may want to read my article entitled, “Montessori, Waldorf & Co-op: Why a Preschool's Philosophy Matters.” https://wehavekids.com/education/Montessori-Waldor...
Question: My son is 2-years-old and diagnosed with mild ADHD. He's still not talking and understanding two-word instructions. If I put him in a play-based curriculum will it help his verbal communication?
Answer: Between the ages of 2 and 3, children engage in “parallel play.” They play alongside one another but not with one another. They're not yet developmentally able to share toys, take turns, have conversations, and cooperate with one another. They're egocentric, don't understand that other kids have feelings, and are extremely possessive of their belongings. If a toy is snatched from their hands, for instance, they may scream because it feels like a part of themselves is being stripped away.
Parents at a park who implore their 2-year-old to share his toys in the sandbox and “be a good friend to the other kids” don't understand the stages of child development. Because of their unrealistic expectations, they can become easily frustrated by a toddler's normal behavior. It's not until children are 4 that they'll reap the benefits of a play-based program. At this age, they're developmentally ready: becoming less self-centered, realizing others have feelings, enjoying the company of other kids, and being able to communicate, cooperate, and work through conflicts.
Because of your son's current stage of development and limited speech, he could be overwhelmed by a play-based program. He might get easily frustrated and fearful in such an environment. His expressive (speaking) and receptive (understanding) language need to improve before he'll feel comfortable and in control in such a setting.
My son received free biweekly speech therapy sessions when he was 3 through our county's early intervention program. His speech therapists were phenomenal: kind, patient, knowledgeable, and extremely supportive to me as a new mom. I hope you have such services in your community and can utilize them for yourself and your son. Speech therapy is more effective when started earlier than later. The speech therapist may also have recommendations for you about playgroups and “Mommy and Me” classes.
You may want to read my article entitled, “ Why Parents Should Embrace Early Intervention Services for Their Child, Not Refuse Them.” https://wehavekids.com/parenting/Whats-So-Special-...
Question: What are your thoughts on the Tools of the Mind curriculum?
Answer: I have no personal experience with Tools of the Mind so I can only say that the word “curriculum” in early childhood education always makes me wary. A curriculum is created by adults to give them the structure and outcomes that they desire. It's designed to meet the demands of politicians, school administrators, and parents. Therefore, it's adult-centered, not child-centered.
A child-centered preschool is one where play is the only course of study and kids are the instigators of their learning. Instead of concentrating on predetermined knowledge they want to instill, teachers focus on their roles as facilitators of play. They allow kids to explore and interact without interruption. Youngsters, therefore, create their own curriculum based on their unique interests and curiosities.
Teachers who advocate for play make themselves available to the children. They respond to them at the moment because they're not bogged down by a curriculum that needs to be adhered to and a tight schedule that needs to be followed. Research shows long periods of undisturbed play are necessary for kids to acquire meaningful knowledge. Deep learning doesn't arise by kids jumping from station-to-station to do teacher-directed activities, which is so common at preschools today.
A child-centered preschool centers on the youngsters' imaginations, not on academic preparation for kindergarten. There's no curriculum for it other than playing. It's accomplished by providing an environment with dress-up clothes, a pretend kitchen, a puppet theater, a performing stage, a dollhouse, art materials, and so forth.
Instead of preschools with a preset curriculum, I recommend those with a strong philosophy. You may want to read my article entitled: “Montessori, Waldorf, & Co-op: Why Philosophy Matters at Preschool.”
Question: Would it be fair to say that based on the information given here that play should be a part of the kindergarten curriculum? What can we do to make kindergarten appropriate again?
Answer: Yes. If you've visited kindergartens as I have during the past 20 years, you've seen the removal of play kitchens, puppet theaters, dollhouses, and painting easels. Because of Common Core and other legislation, kindergarten has become increasingly academic and teacher-centered with on-going assessments, standardized testing, reading groups, and STEM lessons. It's become less child-centered with little unstructured play and downtime time except at recess. This creates unnecessary stress for young children and diminishes their creativity, curiosity, and love of learning.
Sadly, many uninformed parents (and even teachers) think this “earlier is better” approach is a good thing and results in smarter kids. It doesn't, though, and has disastrous consequences like we're now witnessing with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and narcissism among children and teens.
My neighbor was absolutely devastated when her kindergartner was placed in the “low” reading group. Therefore, she's now sending her preschooler to tutoring twice a week so the same thing won't happen to him. He hates doing the homework packets filled with boring phonics pages. It's turning him off to school before he's even started. When moms and dads parent out of anxiety like this, it's never a good thing for kids.
I've written an article on this topic entitled, “How We Killed Kindergarten in America and How We Can Revive It.”
Speaking up about the deleterious effects of less play is one thing we can all do to bring about change. We can also write lawmakers and join the organization “Defending the Early Years” that advocates for developmentally appropriate practices for young kids. Thanks for caring!
Question: My daughter's preschool teacher is constantly telling the class that the activities they're doing will prepare them for kindergarten. This means nothing to my daughter or her classmates. Should I say something to the teacher?
Answer: While visiting various preschools in the past 5-6 years, I've heard many comments like the one your daughter's teacher made. Before that time, I never did. In light of the Common Core standards at elementary schools, the new crop of early childhood educators is forced to approach preschool in a much narrower way—primarily as academic preparation for kindergarten.
Based on what they learned in their early childhood education courses, most teachers fully support preschool as a place for play, exploration, imagination, and interaction. Sadly, though, they lack the authority to offer it that way. In the current climate, early academic learning is considered to be extremely advantageous with politicians and taxpayers demanding to see results.
Teachers at publicly-funded preschools such as Head Start have a whole laundry list of assessments and outcomes that they must follow. Even those who work at private preschools are under tremendous pressure from parents to prepare their students for kindergarten. Preschool directors and teachers too often hear: “I'm not paying to send my kid to preschool just to play!”
With that being said, I have sympathy for the plight of your daughter's teacher. I'm sure she understands that her comment doesn't mean a thing to her students but probably uttered them out of anxiety. She may have intentionally spoken those words for the ears of adults in the classroom (parent-helpers, the director) who are pushing her to prepare the class for kindergarten.
Instead of addressing this specific remark, I'd let her know how much you value play at preschool. If more parents like you would let their voices be heard, we could return to the days when preschool was child-centered. The research clearly supports play, exploration, imagination, and interaction over alphabet, circle time, and workbooks. If passionate moms and dads advocate for change, we can surely make it happen. You may want to read my article entitled: ”Why Circle Time at Preschool Gets Overused When Small Groups Are Better.”
Question: How long did it take you, the writer of this article, to find that play-based preschool is better than an academic? I find this 100% true. Play is so important. It helps with growing up and adapting to life's challenges.
Answer: Those of us who studied early childhood education in college learned about the critical importance of play from all our professors and all our reading materials. Therefore, we’ve always known that it’s the primary vehicle by which preschoolers discover the world, develop empathy, acquire knowledge, and become enthusiastic life-long learners. That fact remains unchanged and undisputed.
What has changed in the past 20 years is government legislation in public education such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core. While those measures aimed to improve K-12 learning, they unintentionally hurt preschool learning by reducing opportunities for unstructured play. Today, politicians, parents, and school administrators expect preschools to prepare kids academically for kindergarten.
That, however, comes out a huge price with less social interaction, less exploration, less curiosity, less creativity, and less imaginative play. We are beginning to see the devastating effects of this with increasing rates of depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide among youngsters and teens. Play in the early years is essential for promoting kids who are strong and stable: physically, socially, emotionally, and psychologically. Early childhood educators have always known this but have been fighting an uphill battle against uninformed politicians and parents.
You may want to read my article entitled: “5 Preschool Activities That Parents Should Know Are a Waste of Time.” https://wehavekids.com/education/Choosing-a-Presch... Thanks for your question.
© 2017 McKenna Meyers
McKenna Meyers (author) on March 13, 2020:
Elle Ari, you know your son best so trust your gut. You chose Waldorf for a reason. It's such a beautiful philosophy and the parent community is so committed. It provides such a magical, child-centered environment. Social interaction is an important part of kindergarten that promotes language development, problem solving, and empathy. If you think he'll have more of it at Waldorf, that's a huge plus. I'd stay the course, knowing you can always make a switch in the future if necessary.
Elle Ari on March 12, 2020:
Thank you for writing these posts and for sharing your experience, knowledge and expertise. I have a question that's keeping me awake and it's a bit personal; my apologies if this is not the right forum for it but I couldn't find an email address and I'd really appreciate your input.
My 4 year old son attends a Waldorf kinder. It's time for us to choose a school. We would like to continue with Waldorf but the teacher has mentioned he struggles with the rythm as he gets too involved with what he's doing and finds transitions very difficult. It seems like Montessori would be a good fit as he could discover and explore at his own pace; but here is my question: should I "indulge" his exploration or push him a little out of his comfort zone by sticking to Waldorf? I would personally like to continue the path we've chosen especially because I fear he'd spend a lot of solo time if he was to go to Montessori. What would you recommend? Thanks in advance for your reply.
Channon on March 06, 2020:
I did child care for 15 yrs before I stopped and it was always through play children are allowed to move and they learn so much as long as there is someone there playing with them(adult) you teach them to count while building with blocks or sing songs and they have fun they are not forced to just sit at a desk or in front of a tv
McKenna Meyers (author) on January 14, 2020:
Thanks, Marc, for expressing your passion for play. For our children's physical and emotional well-being, we adults need to start advocating for it. As anxiety rates among children continue to increase, we need to appreciate that play is the key to combating it.
Marc Lee from Durham, NC on January 14, 2020:
Play is one of the ways we learn and develop our social skills so for schools to take away this vital element of development is just plain WRONG and EVIL!!!!
McKenna Meyers (author) on March 23, 2019:
Celine, good luck on your dissertation. The DEY (Defending the Early Years) website is a fabulous resource. It has regular articles and blogs from long-time leaders in early childhood education such as Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Dr. Diane Levin as well as guest writers. It has lots of information on how Common Core hurts young children. DEY also has a YouTube channel.
McKenna Meyers (author) on March 15, 2019:
I so agree with you, Terri, and thanks for sharing the article about doubling recess. It just makes sense that kids would need a break after an hour of sitting. I sure do. We are all mentally sharper after moving our bodies and getting fresh air. We have the research and now we just need to put it in practice here in the United States
Terri Harding on March 14, 2019:
So many people need to see this and actually pay attention. This and the removal of recess, and art from our schools is tragedy for our society. https://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/doubli...
McKenna Meyers (author) on March 09, 2019:
Geeta, I'm so pleased you wish to share my article with your preschool parents. Please include this link in your newsletter:
I get paid for my articles based on the clicks I receive. This way they can view the 3 powerful videos in the piece as well. Thanks for spreading the message about the importance of play-based preschools!
Geeta Ahuja on March 09, 2019:
I too would like to print in my preschool news letter... Pls guide if I can and how to get the text.
McKenna Meyers (author) on March 17, 2018:
Yes, that sums it up, Kathryn. I don't know why politicians, administrators, and bureaucrats decided to focus on early childhood education and demand academic rigor there when we have so much research to prove it folly. I volunteered at my son's middle school for three years, and that's certainly a place where academic rigor is appropriate and sorely lacking. Students, such as my son, want more challenging classes with classmates who are motivated to learn but are told there are no options. Some parents have their children do classes online in math and science and then take them to middle school for orchestra, art, and P.E. High schools can definitely benefit from more vocational training classes but, oh no, we have to focus on preschool and kindergarten and take away play and creativity from 4 and 5-year-olds. Ugh!
Kathryn L Hill from LA on March 16, 2018:
I agree. Thank You for writing. Here is the crux of you message:
"Not coincidentally, we now see a huge increase in emotional disorders in children. This is a high price to pay for early academic achievement that's largely meaningless."