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Lisa Belkin

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Is Preschool Dead?

Posted: 11/ 2/2011 3:13 pm

At one particularly memorable preschool orientation I attended, after a presentation of how child-centric the particular school was, and how the youngest students all learn through play, and about how learning takes place best when unstructured and organic, the teacher said: "We don't do the letter A on Monday and B on Tuesday and C on Wednesday," the teacher would say.

Unable to contain himself, one father shot up his hand. "B-b-b-but by the end of the year, will they have learned their A,B, Cs?" he asked.

He's hardly the only one asking. The push and pull between academics and free play is the central debate among early educators -- and the subject of a fascinating article in the latest issue of Scientific American, titled "The Death of Preschool". Writer Paul Tullis describes how the experts know, with certainty what is best. And yet, he explains, the trend is away from doing it.

He writes:

..."just playing" is in fact what nearly all developmental psychologists, neuroscientists and education experts recommend for children up to age seven as the best way to nurture kids' development and ready them for academic success later in life. Decades of research have demonstrated that their innate curiosity leads them to develop their social, emotional and physical skills independently, through exploration-- that is, through play. Even animals as diverse as squirrels, horses and bears engage in, and cognitively ben- efit from, play. The trend among preschools, however, is to engage children in activities that look more and more like school for older kids. Early-childhood educators are turning to a method known as direct instruction, which the National Institute for Direct Instruction, an advocacy group, defines as "teaching that emphasizes well-developed and carefully planned lessons ... and clearly defined and prescribed teaching tasks." So children spend more time sitting, listening and following instructions and less time playing pirates.

The reasons?

Testing -- well-intentioned but flawed measures of how much a child has learned.

And parents -- particularly this generation of parents, Tullis reports. He quotes Alison Gopnik, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley explaining that today's first time parents are older and, because they are further from their extended families, less likely to have experience with children before they have their own. "But what they have lots of experience with is going to school and work; they're really good at that, so it's natural they think that's what children should be doing as well," Gopnik tells him. "Not having seen what a three-year-old is like, they think they should put children in situations that are more academic."

Speaking of academics, Tullis provides a great bibliography of writing on this subject, should you want to learn more. Among them:

Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn--And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Diane Eyer. Rodale Books, 2003.

Montessori: The Science behind the Genius. Angeline Stoll Lillard. Oxford University Press, 2005.

The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. Alison Gopnik. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Mind in the Making. Ellen Galinsky. Harper Paperbacks, 2010.
◆ Primal Brain in the Modern Classroom. David C. Geary in Scientific

And speaking of parents, Paul Rasmussen has his own tales of awkward questions asked by parents at preschool open houses. You can go cringe in discomfort with him over here.