Tag Archives: kindergarten

Academic Preschools

academic

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.”

Learn more:

photo credit: Homework via photopin (license)

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Book Series about Simple Machines

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[An updated version of this post can be found at: https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2016/10/26/simple-machines-engineering-for-kids/]

There are several series of books about Simple Machines. I got samples from each series, and will write up here my first impressions of each. These are not meant to be in-depth reviews, just snapshots of my opinions. Of course, what book is best depends on your audience and your setting. I am looking for books to read aloud in group time to children age 2.5 to 7. Many of these books that I don’t rate high might be great for a 5 – 7 year old, but I’m trying to find something to appeal to a very wide range.

In this post, I summarize my impressions of the series, based on the books I read (starred). In the attached spreadsheet, I share my specific ratings for the books I read. Here are the four criteria I ranked them on:

  • Pictures: Are they good photos (current, focused, visually appealing) of things that are interesting to kids?
  • Words: Would this be a good read-aloud book for a group of 3 – 6 year olds? Easy to understand and interesting to listen to?
  • Big Idea: Does it get, and adequately convey the key concepts about this simple machine and how it works? (For my summary of what I think those key concepts are, see my Inventors of Tomorrow posts on each of the types of Simple Machines.)
  • Examples: Are there several good examples of the machine that would be interesting to children? (But I don’t want examples of every single way this simple machine can be applied, because sometimes that makes it hard for a young child to remember the big picture.)

Series Name: Amazing Science: Simple Machines. Author: Dahl
Books: Roll, Slope, and Slide*; Scoop, Seesaw, and Raise*; Pull, Lift, and Lower*; Cut, Chop, and Stop; Tires, Spokes, and Sprockets
Review: Engaging pictures and words, though a little high level for us. But I didn’t think the pulley book and inclined plane book did the best job of explaining key concepts.

Series Name: Blastoff Readers: Simple Machines. Author: Manolis
Books: Ramps*; Levers; Pulleys*; Screws; Wedges; Wheels and Axles*
Review: These would be my top choice if I had only 5 – 7 year olds, but they’re a little too long and too sophisticated for my little ones. Brightly colored and engaging pictures. Good diagrams and descriptions of key concepts – very clear. Nice examples

Series Name: Early Reader Science: Simple Machines. Author: Dahl
Books: Ramps and Wedges; Levers; Pulleys; Wheels and Axles*
Review: Pictures OK, but not especially appealing to young ones. Length-wise, it would be OK for circle, but vocabulary a little high level. It gives examples of so many kinds of wheels and axles (steering wheels, gears, sprockets, cranks, cams, etc.) that the basic concept is lost. Does not mention friction.

Series Name: How Toys Work. Author: Smith
Books: Ramps and Wedges*; Levers*; Pulleys*; Screws, Nuts and Bolts*; Wheels and Axles*
Review: I want to love these books. The pictures are great. The language is age appropriate and engaging. There are lots of good examples, all of which are toys and other things that appeal to young children. In some of the books, the big idea is explained well (Pulleys and Screws) But others seem to miss the big idea. (Ramps and Wedges; Wheels and Axles.) I would use these books to engage the younger students, but also want some of the other series to share with the older readers to better explain concept.

Series Name: My World of Science. Author: Randolph
Books: Inclined Planes in my World*; Levers in My World; Pulleys in my World; Wedges in My World*; Wheels and Axles in my World [there doesn’t appear to be a Screws book]
Review: Pictures are fine; words are appropriate level and the book is a good length for circle time, big idea is explained well, and there are lots of examples, but they all tie together in a clear logical way to the same big idea. It ends with asking “can you think of [wedges] you see around you?” Then offers a picture glossary of key words. This is a reliable, useable, but not exciting series.
Note: this series is bilingual English / Spanish. So Wedges in My World is also Cunas en mi mundo. Each page has the text in English first, then Spanish.

Series Name: Simple Machines. Author: Armentrout
Books: Inclined Planes, Levers*, Pulleys*, Screws*, Wedges*, Wheels*
Review: The language level and the length would be fine for 5 – 7 year olds, but too much for our little ones. They also go beyond what we need with our younger age group (level book addresses first, second and third class levers and compound levers.) Pictures are fine, examples are good, but in some books there are so many examples the big idea is lost.

Series Name: Simple Machines. Author: Bodden
Books: Inclined Planes; Levers, Pulleys*, Screws*, Wedges*, Wheels*
Review: They’re pretty books, but photos may be a little artsy for little kids. Words are a little dry. In general concepts are very clear and easy to understand and examples clearly illustrate the ideas. But, I thought the screw book was unclear and jumbled examples together that it wasn’t clear how they related. We used several of these books in our circle times in class, but tried to balance with How Toys Work, which are brighter and more fun.

Series Name: Simple Machines. Author: Tieck
Books: Inclined Planes*, Levers, Pulleys*, Screws*, Wedges, Wheels and Axles
Review: A little long, a little old, and too dry for our purposes. But, I think these are the best descriptions of the big idea. We didn’t read these in circle, but I did have them on the bookshelf for the older kids to check out.

Series Name: Simple Machines to the Rescue. Author: Thales
Books: Inclined Planes to the Rescue*; Levers ttR, Pulleys ttR, Screws ttR*, Wedges ttR, Wheels and Axles ttR
Review: I see these recommended on other people’s sites, but I’m not a fan. The pictures aren’t great, the language is a little advanced. And I just find that they do the weakest job of explaining simple machines concepts. For example, in the screw book, their first example is a lid on a soda bottle, then a spiral staircase, then Archimedes screw, then an olive oil press, and then it talks about things that are held together by screws. Nowhere in there does it really describe what a screw is and what type of work each of these tools has in common.

Series Name: Useful Machines. Author: Oxlade
Books: Ramps and Wedges; Levers; Pulleys; Screws*; Wheels
Review: Good pictures, engaging and easy to understand for 5 – 7 year olds. I have only read the screw book, but I like it a lot. However, I would not use it as the intro to screws. Once kids had a solid grasp of the basics of screws, it does a nice job of giving examples of all the different applications

If you’re teaching about Simple Machines, be sure to check out my Inventors of Tomorrow series… I give examples of lots of hands-on activities you can use with kids 2.5 – 7 to teach these concepts.

When should kids learn to read?

readThe Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years just released a report called Reading Instruction in Kindergarten – Little to Gain, Much to Lose, discussed in a Washington Post article titled “Requiring kindergartners to read — as Common Core does — may harm some.” This post looks at what we know about children and early literacy learning.

When I was a child in the 60’s, I came into kindergarten knowing how to read – I could easily read any picture book. I was the only real reader in the class – but I came from a big family of early readers. By the end of the year, my classmates were all expected to have their alphabets down, and more kids were reading. By the end of first grade, most kids were reading. Those who weren’t got a little extra help in second grade and were caught up by the end of the year. That may reflect the normal range in developmental capabilities.

But today’s kindergartners are being taught to Common Core standards. In kindergarten, there are over 90 standards kids are expected to meet, including:

  • Recognize and name all upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet.
  • Associate the long and short sounds with common spellings (graphemes) for the five major vowels.
  • Use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes (e.g., -ed, -s, re-, un-, pre-, -ful, -less) as a clue to the meaning of an unknown word.
  • [And, by the end of the year:] Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.

Is this do-able for some kids? Absolutely. My kids all read before kindergarten. My youngest just turned 4 and has already mastered the standards I just listed. (And believe me, it’s not because we drilled him with flashcards or worked with worksheets for hours… we’re much too lazy as parents to do that! We just did simple things to create a good environment for literacy learning, and he took it from there.)

But NOT ALL KIDS are ready to read at this young age!

Kids develop in predictable patterns, but not at exactly the same rate. And they’re stronger in some areas at any given time than in others. For example, although my kids were early readers, they also each had areas they were “behind on” for their age, which were the challenges they needed to work on in kindergarten.

Dr. Arnold Gesell found that all children go on the same path of development; however, some go faster, some go slower, and all have spurts and set-backs
along the way. The obvious example is the age that children learn to walk. Some children learn to walk as early as nine months, some as late as 15 months. But that is all normal and we all agree that the early walker is not a better walker than the later walker. … Some children learn to read at age three or four years, others not until seven years or later. That range is quite normal. The most compelling part of the reading research is that by the end of third grade, early readers have no advantage over later readers. Some later readers even go on to become the top in their class. Reading early is not an indicator of higher intelligence. In fact, children at the top of their class in kindergarten only have a 40 percent chance of being at the top of their class at the end of third grade.

When we focus on academically based standards, it’s hard for kids who aren’t developmentally ready for that, but it’s also hard for kids like mine who needed skills that weren’t necessarily on the list of things a teacher is now “supposed” to teach. “In a survey… of early childhood teachers… 85% of the public school teachers reported that they are required to teach activities that are not developmentally appropriate for their students.”

And when teachers are asked to teach non-developmentally appropriate content, they have to do it in non-developmentally appropriate ways.

We hear increasing reports of kindergartens that use worksheets and drills, rely on lengthy whole-group lessons, and require teachers to frequently pull children out of the classroom to administer assessments. A parent recently wrote: “My 5-year-old son started Common Core Kindergarten this year in California. Even though it’s only been two months he is already far behind. … [W]e are required to do … [worksheets] four nights a week. It’s the same boring thing over and over again… I know he’s not stupid but I’m being told in not so clear terms that he is. It’s very disheartening.”

Drills and worksheets are not the way kids learn.

Well, in the short-term, they can be. Direct instruction CAN help children memorize specific facts and learn specific skills, but it doesn’t foster the curiosity and creativity that can be beneficial for learning in the long run. (Learn more in this article on “Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School.”) And, the “boring” work can drain the passion for learning from our kids, which I believe is key for long-term academic success. And, for kids who aren’t developmentally ready for the work, it can make them feel stupid. I know of boys who weren’t ready to read at age 6 and 7. They learned at that age that they were “stupid” in school subjects and continue as young adults to think of themselves that way.

The report states: “We could find no research cited by the developers of the CCSS [Common Core] to support this reading standard for kindergarten… of the people on the committees that wrote and reviewed the CCSS, not one of those individuals was a
K-3rd grade teacher or an early childhood professional.”

What does the research show?

 There is no solid evidence showing long-term gains for children who are taught to read in kindergarten. In fact, by fourth grade and beyond, these children read at the same level as those who were taught to read in the first grade.

So, what is developmentally appropriate for preschool and kindergarten? Play-based learning.

Children learn best when they are engaged in activities geared to their developmental levels, prior experiences and current needs. As they construct their ideas through
play and hands-on activities that make sense to them, children’s knowledge builds in a gradual progression that is solid and unshakable. They build a foundation of meaning that provides the basis for understanding concepts in language, literacy, math, science and the arts. In active learning, their capacities for language development, social and emotional awareness, problem solving, self-regulation, creativity, and original thinking develop, transforming them into effective learners.

Being able to read well will also depend on the strength of a child’s oral language development. Active, play-based experiences in the early years foster strong oral language in children. As children engage in active learning experiences and play, they are talking and listening all the time. They attach words to their actions, talk with
peers and teachers, learn new vocabulary and use more complex grammar. As they build, make paintings, and engage in imaginative play, they deepen their understanding of word meanings. As they listen to and create stories, hear rich language texts, sing songs, poems and chants, their foundation for reading grows strong.

What’s the evidence that play-based preschool and kindergarten works in the long-run?

In one study, in the third grade there was little difference between students who had been in play-based preschools versus academic achievement programs. By 6th grade, the kids from the academic preschools earned lower grades than those who were in play-based preschools. A German study in the 70’s compared kids from play-based vs. academic preschools. In fourth grade, those from play-based programs excelled “on all 17 measures, including being more advanced in reading and mathematics and being better adjusted socially and emotionally in school.” So, they’re not only successful academically, but also socially. In an American study from the 60’s, children from impoverished households were assigned to either play-based preschools or to a scripted, direct-instruction approach. There were similar short-term gains for all children in the first year. But at age 23, there were significant differences. 47% of the kids from the direct instruction classroom needed special education for social difficulties versus 6% of the play-based alumni.

When looking for preschool or kindergarten for your child, you can look for play-based options. If they are in a kindergarten that follows Common Core standards, you can look for ways to balance that out at home with lots of child-directed free play. You can create a literacy-rich home environment without pushing reading. If your child is ready to read young, they will do so. If they’re not ready, they won’t feel stressed or stupid.

If you are the parent of a toddler, don’t feel any pressure to teach your child to read. But, you can create an environment full of literacy materials that show reading is exciting and fun.Read my ideas on this or follow this lead:

[In play-based settings] Teachers employ many strategies to expose children to rich oral language and print —without bombarding or overwhelming the child. These may include telling stories, reading picture books and big books, singing songs and reciting poems, reading from posted charts (using pointers to read along), drawing and writing with invented and conventional spellings, taking dictation from children, and helping children write their own stories. In organic and meaningful ways, teachers often use print — labeling block structures, cubbies, and interest areas, writing recipes, transcribing the children’s stories, and making charts for attendance or classroom jobs.

photo credit: ThomasLife via photopin cc