Academic Preschools – Feel Free to Skip Them


What does your child need to learn during his preschool years? What is the best way to teach her what she needs to know? Would attending an academic preschool have a huge impact on his future education? What do you need to know to make the right choice?

What your child needs to learn

During the “preschool years”, between age 3 and 5, there are some essential skills you want your child to master. And yes, they will absolutely have an impact on your child’s future success. But most of them have nothing to do with academics: they include independence in self-care, emotional regulation and impulse control, how to make friends, how to take turns, share, and resolve conflicts, how to sit still and listen to a teacher, how to follow rules, and how to join in group activities. (Learn more about essential skills here.) Yes, children do need some basic academic foundations – ideally a beginning kindergartener can do at least the following: recognize the letters of the alphabet, count to 20, draw a picture, know basic facts like colors and shapes, and work with basic school supplies (like scissors and tape.)

But, a child does not need to be a skilled reader, or know addition and subtraction, before kindergarten begins. Some children absolutely can, and do, learn to read at 3 or 4 years old. And if they do that easily, that’s great! But, if your child isn’t reading at age 5, it’s fine. Research shows that if you compare early readers and late readers at age 5, you’ll see a big difference. But, if you compare them again at age 7 or 8, the late readers typically have caught up with their peers. ((Look here for a full article on when children should learn to read and how to help them. And here’s a video which summarizes the research.)

The downsides to pushing academics too early:

With the nationwide focus on core curricula and standardized testing, the academics that used to be taught in first and second grade are now being pushed down into kindergarten to children who may not be developmentally ready for them. In the past, kindergarten was a gentle transition from home to school, where children learned how to follow rules, pay attention, and find their cubbies. By contrast, here’s one parent’s story of her child’s experience of modern kindergarten:

My daughter’s first day of kindergarten consisted almost entirely of assessment. She was due at school at 9:30, and I picked her up at 11:45. In between, she was assessed by five different teachers, each a stranger, asking her to perform some task. By the time I picked her up, she did not want to talk about what she had done in school, but she did say that she did not want to go back. She did not know the teachers’ names. She did not make any friends. Later that afternoon, as she played with her animals in her room, I overheard her drilling them on their numbers and letters. Source

She is not alone in this – in a nationwide 2010 study, 73% of kindergarteners took a standardized test (one third took tests at least once a month). In 1998, no one asked kindergarten teachers about testing, but the first grade teachers of 1998 gave fewer tests than kindergarten teachers of 2010. In 1998, 31% of teachers thought children should be reading by the end of kindergarten. In 2010, 80% believed that. Source

Parents, and teachers, respond to this pressure by moving the pre-academic skills children used to work on in kindergarten down into pre-school.

If we push children to succeed at academics early, we run a few risks: first, that they will be stressed and pressured about academics. They may come to view reading as the “unpleasant stressful work I had to do” and resent “having” to read in the future.

For long-term academic success, one of the most important things we can teach our child is that reading is fun and learning is fun. Sometimes early academic pressure can teach children the opposite lesson…

A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning. Source.

The second risk is that academics will displace many other subjects that children benefit from. Kindergarten teachers report that in the pressure to excel in reading or math, programs are cutting time spent on art, music, and science. Source.

The third risk is that if we spend all our time working on academic skills, we may be depriving our children of the time they need to spend to learn all the other essential skills (self care, impulse control, conflict resolution, etc.) that are better learned through social play. These skills are much harder to learn later in life.

Preschool years are not only optimal for children to learn through play, but also a critical developmental period. If children are not given enough natural movement and play experiences, they start their academic careers with a disadvantage. They are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, utilize poor problem-solving methods, and demonstrate difficulties with social interactions. We are consistently seeing sensory, motor, and cognitive issues pop up more and more  in later childhood, partly because of inadequate opportunities to move and play at an early age.  Source.

What’s a better alternative to an academic preschool?

Preschool age children do best in a play-based environment, with more emphasis on Process than Product. An experienced, knowledgeable teacher has set out thoughtful invitations to play, and materials to encourage learning (such as Montessori materials). Then the children are allowed to move around the room, engaging in both independent exploration and social play, spending as much time on each activity as they desire. The teacher moves around, making observations and asking questions to extend learning. When children have questions that they need answers to in order to move their play along, the teacher shows them the power of reading, math, and other academic tools to find those answers. This excites them about learning those academic skills.

The class also includes some formal group time so children can practice sitting still, paying attention, and following rules. Music, art, and lots of physically active, outdoor play are important.

How do you make sure your child learns academic skills?

I could say “trust the process.” A good play-based preschool will help your child gain all the “essential preschool age skills” that I referenced above, including academic foundations. In general, if they’re in a good preschool, you don’t need to worry.

But, I know parents do worry – here’s how some parents handle that anxiety…

I attended an open house at a progressive elementary school. When one prospective parent said, anxiously, “But if you don’t test the kids, and you don’t do standardized textbooks, how do you know that they’re learning what they need to learn??” The teachers at the school had lots of good answers for that. But I like this pragmatic answer from a parent of two alumni: “When my kids were here, I sometimes got worried. When I did, I’d go to Lakeshore Learning or Barnes and Noble, and pick up some workbooks – the same workbooks that many “academic” schools are using. When I had down time with the kids – waiting for food in a restaurant, waiting for soccer practice to start, or whenever they were bored, we’d work through the workbook. And it always turned out that they were right on track – at grade level or above across the board. They were in fact learning all the academic stuff they were supposed to learn, plus a whole lot more in terms of social skills, creativity, and the other things that play-based schools foster in kids.”

I know another parent who uses mobile apps and online teaching tools with their kids at home. They say “the games make learning fun for the kids. So, they drill their alphabet or phonics, or basic addition over and over, but they’re having so much fun that the learning comes naturally.” Then they take their kids to a play-based outdoor preschool for large motor play, time in nature, and lots of free play time with other kids.

Another parent takes her child to library story time at least once a week, and they get plenty of books to take home and read. Her child views library time and reading as one of the most exciting “treats” of the week. They also practice math at home and do science activities. She says “I’m not a mathematician or a scientist, but you don’t really have to be to teach a preschooler!” They attend a coop preschool together for all the “things we can’t do at home on our own, especially art and music.”

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photo credit: Homework via photopin (license)


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