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Picking a Preschool for Your Child: What to Look for and What to Avoid

Pretend play is how preschoolers learn best and is far more effective than workbooks, circle time, and other structured activities.

Pretend play is how preschoolers learn best and is far more effective than workbooks, circle time, and other structured activities.

Preschool Checklist for Parents

  • A child-centered environment where kids learn by doing
  • A teacher and director with degrees (or units) in early childhood education
  • A play-based approach where kids spend the vast majority of their time talking and interacting with one another
  • Classroom spaces that promote imagination: a play kitchen, a puppet theater, an animal hospital, a doctor's office, a pirate ship, a doll house
  • Lots of outdoor time
  • A large area for block play
  • Easels
  • Open-ended art activities (painting, coloring, drawing, printmaking, collage creating) that emphasize process over product
  • A teacher who asks questions so children discover things on their own
  • No circle time (or a brief one), no whole group calendar activities

Features That Parents Should Avoid:

  • An adult-centered classroom where the teacher is seen as the source of all knowledge
  • A teacher and director with elementary school teaching credentials but no units in early childhood education
  • An academic approach where the teacher is striving to prepare kids for kindergarten by teaching letters, sounds, numbers, patterns, counting, and handwriting
  • Workbooks
  • Limited outdoor time
  • Structured lessons in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)
  • Teacher-led craft projects where kids duplicate a sample
  • Craft projects that are intended to impress parents with a focus on product over process
  • A teacher who likes to be front and center, filling the kids with information
  • A long circle time, calendar activities led by the teacher

This video details what parents should seek in a preschool: a child-centered environment that celebrates play.

Piaget Gets Cast Aside

Those who study early childhood education read about the four stages of cognitive development set forth by the Swiss psychologist, Dr. Jean Piaget. In the early 20th century, he examined how youngsters develop intelligence. Since that time, his findings have profoundly influenced how students around the globe are educated. He established that young children learn most effectively when making their own discoveries. Therefore, exploration became the core of early childhood education for many decades in the US.

Sadly, though, Piaget is rolling over in his grave now as preschools here have moved far afield from that determination. Today, early childhood education has largely cast aside Piaget in a push for early academics based on the folly of politicians, not the findings of scholars. Therefore, we have classrooms with workbooks, ongoing assessments, long circle times, and teacher-directed lessons. There is now less time for free play, social interaction, and creative pursuits.

The Death of Expertise

America's shortsightedness in early childhood education has resulted in long-term negative consequences. Because of it, our children and teens suffer from greater rates of anxiety, depression, narcissism, and suicide. Dr. Peter Gray discusses all these tragic ramifications in a book that I highly recommend to all parents of preschoolers. It's entitled Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. It's been my indispensable guide in rearing my own two sons, as well as in teaching hundreds of preschoolers.

Hopefully, moms and dads will heed what scholars such as Dr. Piaget and Dr. Gray have written about our children's need to play and explore. It's critical that they do so, not only for the benefit of their own youngsters, but for the overall well-being of our nation. Otherwise, early childhood education will remain another casualty from the "death of expertise" that's plaguing America.

Children should be able to do their own experimenting and their own research. Teachers, of course, can guide them by providing appropriate materials, but the essential thing is that in order for a child to understand something, he must construct it himself, he must re-invent it. Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself. On the other hand that which we allow him to discover by himself will remain with him visibly for the rest of his life.

— Jean Piaget

Child-Centered Preschools Disappear

Piaget deemed the years between 2 and 7 as the preoperational stage. It's characterized by a child's language acquisition, egocentrism, and imagination. During this period of rapid development, Piaget would advocate for a child-centered classroom where youngsters explore materials and interact with one another. He'd favor lots of time for them to engage in dramatic play: pretending to be chefs in the kitchen, construction workers in the sandbox, and police officers in the courtyard. Since language develops swiftly during this stage, he'd want children to have endless opportunities to express themselves, learn new vocabulary, and communicate with one another.

Piaget would despair if he knew what was happening today at many preschools in the US. He would be dismayed that teachers are now front and center, acting as the source of all knowledge. Instead of guiding children to discover things on their own, these educators are force-feeding information to kids. Sadly, it's typically material that they're not yet developmentally ready to handle and is meaningless to them.

What Is a Child-Centered Classroom?

It respects learners as unique individuals with their own interests, curiosities, and abilities. It's the antithesis of the one-size-fits-all approach that we see at many preschools in the US where a single curriculum serves everyone. It's characterized by learning centers, dramatic play areas, and a wide variety of hands-on materials. Youngsters are encouraged to explore, play, and interact, learning on their own and with peers as they make discoveries.

Adult-Centered Preschools Multiply

Dr. Piaget would be distressed by how preschools in the US have shifted from child-centered environments to adult-centered ones. Kid-focused activities such as playing, painting, and pretending have been minimized in favor of teacher-led ones. The school day is now designed to fit a grownup's need for structure with circle time, calendar activities, lessons about the weather, and monthly themes about dinosaurs, planets, transportation, pets, and trees.

At most preschools today, there is little time set aside for children to explore and discover by themselves because everything is tightly structured. The unique interests and curiosities of kids are neglected in favor of a one-size-fits-all curriculum that's imposed by the teacher. The developmentally appropriate philosophy that once reigned supreme in early childhood education, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears,” has been replaced. Instead, we now go by: "It doesn't matter if the students are ready or not; we're going to cram them full of this information no matter what!"

Curiosity Should Be the Starting Point

If Lily is fascinated by dinosaurs, she needs a preschool teacher who directs her to books about them in the classroom library. If Jackson loves cars, he needs a teacher who suggests that he build one with the recycled materials in the art center's "creation station." If Amber is enthralled by pets, she needs a teacher who adds a dog bowl, cat toys, and stuffed animals to the dramatic play corner so it becomes a veterinary clinic.

Little kids don't need a teacher who's an expert on everything from physics to robotics to botany. Instead, they need one who acts as a facilitator. They need someone who's working deliberately and quietly behind the scenes to enliven their unique interests and help them experience the magic of discovering things on their own.

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

— Jean Piaget

Academic Preschools Kill Creativity

Today, employers are searching for workers who are creative thinkers and keen problem solvers. Unfortunately, they're struggling mightily to find them. Their inability to hire such folks, though, isn't surprising given that students in the US have shown a marked decline in imaginative thinking over the past two to three decades.

This is evidenced in the results from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). However, this sad outcome is hardly surprising to scholars in early childhood education. They, after all, predicted such a dramatic decrease in creativity with the decrease in play at preschools.

Implications for Our Nation

Professor Kyung Hee Kim, who analyzed student scores on the TTCT, writes: "children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle."

If Professor Kim's analysis isn't cause for alarm and a call for action, what is? By becoming hyper-focused on teaching children how to read in kindergarten, we've foolishly reduced preschool into a training ground for elementary school. The results have been disastrous and the benefits have been nil. There's not a speck of evidence to suggest that kids are any smarter in the long run because of it.

What Is Learned Helplessness?

When people or animals have no control over their situation, they tend to give up and surrender. A dog in a cage at the pound, for example, will bark, whine, and scratch at the bars to get out when he first arrives. But, over time, he'll stop these behaviors and accept his fate. People who experience learned helplessness often suffer severe mental health issues such as increased stress levels, depression, and a lack of motivation.

Children Feel Powerless

When we shifted from child-centered preschools to adult-centered ones, we stripped kids of their autonomy. We made teachers responsible for their learning instead of them. We told them that their curiosities weren't nearly as important as what adults wanted them to know: reciting the days of the week, writing their names, and counting to 100. We robbed them of opportunities to make their own choices.

With less control over their environment, many young children experience "learned helplessness." This frustration and despair come about when they have little power. When they're constantly being told where to go and what to do, they can feel hopeless.

Even when kids are outside at adult-centered preschools, they're often doing structured activities. Instead of enjoying free play, they're doing games led by a teacher such as tag, duck-duck-goose, and mother may I. They have fewer opportunities to use their imaginations, take initiative, and do as they desire.

Play is the work of children.

— Jean Piaget

Children Need More Play

Dr. Gray, a researcher who studies play from an evolutionary perspective, argues that kids need more of it, not less of it. He says that it's how young mammals learn crucial social and emotional skills such as sharing, cooperating, communicating, and empathizing. It helps them develop fit bodies, strong minds, and brave hearts so they can take on new challenges.

When experiments were conducted on young rats and monkeys that deprived them of play, the results were absolutely heartbreaking. The animals become emotionally and socially crippled: fearful and aggressive. As we see the increase in depression, anxiety, and suicide among children, teens, and young adults today, it corresponds with the decrease in play at home and at school. Children need preschool to be a time of unadulterated play and unlimited discovery. As a nation, we should be ashamed of depriving them of that.

In this video, Dr. Peter Gray argues that children need more time to play, not less.

© 2018 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on May 15, 2018:

Yes, Catherine, this is a dark period in early childhood education as academic rigor gets pushed and play gets reduced. However, I think the tide is beginning to turn as I see more interest in "forest schools," where children spend most of their day outside.

Unfortunately, we have people making decisions about early childhood education who know little or nothing about it. It reminds me when I was a first-year teacher. The principal and vice-principal made an executive decision that the kindergarten classroom should be the smallest room in the school. Their reasoning was: Little kids, little room! It made perfectly good sense to them. It never occurred to them to ask the kindergarten teacher with 20+ years of experience!

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on May 14, 2018:

This is such a valuable article. I hope children and parents read it. We don't let children be children any more.The parents want to be able to boast: "My Jesse was reading at three." It's so sad.