Have you ever wondered what the goal of preschool really is? Honestly, I never spent much time pondering this question until recently. Even as a graduate student in child development, I do not remember this issue being discussed much in any of my classes. Now that my son is approaching two years old, however, and I have begun to consider if or when we might enroll him in preschool, I have started delving into the issue a little more.
One of the first things I discovered when learning about preschools is that there seems to be an emerging distinction between “play-based” and “academic” programs. On the face of it, many parents (including myself) might have a tendency to gravitate towards the “academic” preschool model. Isn’t this the best way to prepare my child for the school environment he will face in the future? In some parenting circles, this push for academic preschool has become extremely competitive. A recent New York Times article profiled a mother who felt her choice of preschool for her child might very well determine his chances of attending an Ivy League university.
A quick review of the academic research on this topic reveals that this recent emphasis on “academically rigorous” preschools may, in fact, be undermining youngsters’ ability to learn and be creative. Several recent studies have compared young children’s learning when provided either (1) direct instruction about a toy from a teacher, or (2) time to explore a toy on their own with little adult instruction. The results were quite clear: preschoolers who were “taught” how to use a toy by a teacher, did use the toy as instructed; but that’s all they did. They did not try to find any other features of the toy that the teacher did not explain to them and they did not try to use the toy in new ways. By contrast, the preschoolers who were given no direct instruction on the toy, they found new features of the toy and new ways of playing with the toy that the direct instruction group never noticed. So it seems that preschoolers do learn from direct instruction, but they are not as creative or flexible in their learning as when they are just left alone to learn by playing.
In many ways this research reiterates what we’ve know about preschool for awhile. The real benefit of preschool is in learning life skills like social skills, self-control, and persistence, not necessarily in any “academic” skills. Research from 30+ years of Headstart and similar programs have provided strong evidence for this. Kids who attended those preschool programs (most of whom are economically disadvantaged) did better than their peers in school and in life, but not because these programs helped increase their IQ. Researchers found it was the social skills they learned in preschool that put them ahead of their peers on many aspects of later achievement. Sure preschool may also help kids learn their ABCs and colors, but the interaction with peers and teachers is what really seems to matter. So it seems Mr. Rogers was right again. He’s always knew the value of children’s play: “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood” (Fred Rogers).
Here's a great podcast on this topic.
Bonawitz E, Shafto P, Gweon H, Goodman ND, Spelke E, & Schulz L (2011). The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Cognition PMID: 21216395
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