04/11/2014 05:08 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2014

Still Concerned About What's Next for Early Childhood Education

I remain concerned about what's next. I am one of the many appreciating the recognition that early childhood education is receiving from both national and state administrations in 2014. With such an opportunity in our sights, I urge policy makers, parents, early education teachers and administrators to move forward with a child development perspective.

What do I mean by a child development perspective? I mean that infants, toddler, preschoolers, and pre-k age children have certain capabilities developmentally. I hear about the number of 5-year-olds being suspended from kindergartens for behavioral issues, and I wonder what is being expected of them. People ask whether the child is ready for school, but the real question simplified is whether the school is ready for the child. You do not have to be an educational expert to know that 5-year-olds are not wired to sit for extended periods of time, that they lead with their body, and that they have their own ideas and curiosity that we should foster and not squelch.

There must be a vision for preschool, pre-k, and kindergarten classrooms as engaging, interactive environments, full of open-ended opportunities for play as learning, and focused on early childhood learning guidelines that address the whole child's learning and development, not just on early academics.

So what exactly does a quality early childhood classroom look like? What I know from my own research, and that of many others, is that quality must embrace play experiences. Through play, children advance in all the critical areas of their development and learning: cognitive, academics, physical, language, literacy, social, and emotional. At this age, these areas all go hand-in-hand and are taught together, not separately. What I worry about is that scripted lessons, direct instruction and worksheet drills may someday replace play and hands-on exploration for young children, and we need to be thoughtful as we move forward with this new, and much-needed, early childhood emphasis.

Even in kindergarten, the pressures are often pervasive. Most kindergarten teachers know that their classrooms are still a place where the "child's garden" should be experienced -- a warm, caring atmosphere with blocks, dramatic play opportunities, shared stories, a water table, and lots of outdoor play. And they know play will help their young students' progress holistically. Children will learn more deeply through this engaging environment.

My worry is that although policy makers, parents, and teachers of upper grades want the best for children's learning and development, their image of preschool may be misguided. Early childhood educators have a distinct philosophy that honors how young children naturally learn by offering them opportunities for exploratory play as learning, and they encourage a partnership among the child, parents and themselves, working together more than in any other grade level. Early childhood is not "mini elementary school", and giving children information earlier through worksheets, workbooks, and scripted lessons, is not necessarily linked to better academic results in the future.

Remember that a worksheet is no match for a hands-on experience. A teacher randomly choosing to write the letter P is no match for the child needing to write the P for the menu they are creating for the pizza shop in the dramatic play area. And a fun, playful teacher is headed in the right direction, but still does not replace actual play experiences with children taking the lead and the teacher facilitating. Notice that no science teacher would ever lecture and not include the lab experience. Play is the young child's lab; it's where they construct their knowledge and understanding of the world around them and of their own capabilities laying the foundation for future academic and social success.

Unfortunately, even some early educators are buying into this push-down atmosphere. Some kindergartens look like first grades of the past, yet the children have not changed. Even some preschools are integrating long group times where the teacher leads and the children sit. Parents plan play groups for their toddlers; they have the right idea. These play groups help children grow socially, to develop new vocabulary, and to explore play themes such as fire trucks which build knowledge.

Play is the young child's context for deep learning! Play is not only appropriate, it is critical in preschool, pre-k, and kindergarten. Don't envision a developmentally appropriate classroom as a place of chaos, either. It's a place where children are happily and energetically interacting with their surroundings that support learning. For example, blocks provide math and physics experiences. Dramatic play provides language and literacy opportunities. The sand table provides fundamental science and discovery learning. Let's avoid the teacher-directed and worksheet-heavy model of the early childhood classroom. Let's focus on the whole child, how they learn, where they are in their development, and support their growth and learning, and make sure play as learning is at the heart of the early childhood curriculum.