Tag Archives: play-based

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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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

Finding a Balance of Learning Methods

BalancedLearningChildren learn in a variety of ways.Parents and teachers can help them learn by varying our schedule and activities so they have a chance for some guided learning, some self-directed learning and some down time to process it all.

In this diagram by Kyle Snow, he divides four types of learning up by whether the teacher and child are active or passive. (His diagram shows the rectangles of types of learning – I have added the circles.) Whatever classes or daycare your child attends, it’s worth thinking about whether there are opportunities for all four types of learning.

Here’s how we use the four types of learning in my toddler classes with Bellevue College Parent Education.

Direct Instruction

Direct instruction is what we think of when we say “Teaching.” This is an adult telling information to a child, or doing an instructive demonstration of how to do something. Direct instruction from a parent or a teacher is a good way to convey core information and build “crystallized intelligence” – the database of information we carry around.

In our toddler classes, we offer little snippets of direct instruction throughout the day, doing simple things like showing a child how to pour rice in the sensory bin. But the main structured learning happens in circle time when we read stories, sing songs, and play with felt boards. We encourage all children to participate in the group activity together. (At the beginning of the year, we often have some wanderers, but by the end of the year most are engaged most of the time.)

Scaffolding / Guided Play and Free Play

The best way to build “fluid intelligence” – the kind that helps us adapt to new situations and learn new skills, is hands-on play and interaction with real world experiences.

We always have multiple stations set up around the rooms, and children have the ability to choose what to play with, how to play with it, and for how long. Sometimes the children play independently, exploring and discovering on their own. (Free play.) Sometimes, the parents or teachers are asking questions, giving suggestions, or modelling ways to extend the play and involve new concepts. (Guided play – read more about the teacher or parent’s role in play-based learning here.)

Rest

Children also need down time. Quiet time, with little to no input, so their brain can process all the new information, and cement the connections that help them remember what they have learned. Since our program is just two hours long, we don’t have a lot of down time built in – we hope that children are coming in well-rested, and that they have a chance to nap afterwards. (More on toddler sleep here.)

During class, we do have a book corner where parent and child can snuggle and read for a while. Children are also welcome to come sit with their parents during our parent ed sessions. Snack time also serves as down time for many kids.

Four Types of Learning at Home

Think about your family schedule for a moment. Do you have times when you’re teaching your child? Times when they are playing with you nearby, giving occasional suggestions or playing along? Times when they’re playing independently? Quiet time? A nice mix of these will help them learn and grow.

Some parents say “my child NEVER plays alone. He always wants me to play with him.” It’s wonderful when our children like us and want to spend time with us. But, it’s also good for them to learn to play on their own too. Can you choose some times each day where you say no to them and encourage them to play alone for a while. They may resist at first, but if given a moment to “get bored” and frustrated, most can find something to do. (You can plan ahead for these times by setting up “Invitations to Play” that you think will capture their attention.)

Play-Based Learning

What is play-based learning?

The teacher or parent sets the stage with engaging and fun activities. Then the child explores through play: observing, experiencing, wondering, exploring, and discovering. The teacher or parent is nearby to observe, ask questions, make suggestions, or play along with the child. But the child decides which activities to do, which toys to play with, what to do with them, and for how long.

[The video linked above, by Jessica Lubina, is a nice quick overview of the concept.]

What is play?

Play can be defined as anything that has these characteristics:

  • Child-Led. Freely chosen. The child is in control. He makes the plan.
  • Process, Not Product. Play is done for its own sake, not to accomplish a task. It involves lots of exploring of possibilities, experiments, trial and error, and repetition.
  • Creative. The child can adapt items, create something new or experience things in a new way.
  • Spontaneous. It’s flexible and open-ended, and it changes and evolves as play time goes on.
  • Fun. The player looks happy and engaged.

Does a child really learn by “just playing”?

We know the brain builds connections when it is exposed to novel experiences, and then allowed to repeat them again and again till it achieves mastery. This process builds two 2 forms of intelligence: memory – crystallized intelligence – the database of information that we access, and improvisation – fluid intelligence – what allows us to adapt that information to new situations. (Medina)

Direct instruction from a parent or teacher can be a great way of adding information to the database of crystallized intelligence. But, the best possible way for children to build fluid intelligence is by hands-on, engaged, self-guided improvisation… in other words, by playing.

What play-based learning is not:

  • Specialized toys. Despite what marketers tell you, learning does not require scientifically designed educational toys and apps or flash cards. Simple, open-ended toys will do.
  • Uninvolved babysitters. Some schools have co-opted the phrase “play-based learning” as a justification for sitting back and letting kids do whatever they want to do with no forethought by the teachers, and no input along the way. We’re talking about a more engaged process.

Benefits – Kids who learn by playing gain:

  • Physical competence. Free play allows a child to practice emerging skills till they are mastered.
  • Self-direction. The child gets to make decisions, make plans, and see them through.
  • Creativity. Experiments show that children who are taught “the right way” to use a toy will use it in limited ways. Kids who are allowed to freely explore develop many more creative uses.
  • Problem-solving. When a child creates her own plan for play, she doesn’t foresee challenges that will come up that an adult might see. This offers lots of chances for problem-solving.
  • Language skills. Play requires asking and answering questions, giving commands and acting on them, and explaining your goals to the person you are playing with.
  • Conflict resolution skills. There’s lots of negotiation that goes on in cooperative play.
  • Emotional intelligence. Dramatic play helps children understand emotions, learn how to express emotions, and distinguish between real emotions and “pretend” emotions.
  • Symbolic play. If a child can use a stick to simulate an ice cream cone, it helps her later understand that numbers on a page represent how many objects they have, and that letters represent sounds, and musical notes on a page indicate where to place her fingers.
  • Better memory. Kids are motivated to remember things they need to know for a play scenario.
  • Reduced stress. Play is fun. Children play when they feel safe. We are all more capable of learning new things when we are having fun and feeling safe.

Teacher’s Role / Parent’s Role

The adult plans an environment and schedule which promotes learning. Children learn best when they feel safe, so familiar routines, consistent rules, and respectful caregivers are essential components. The adults offer meaningful experiences that are stimulating, invite exploration and engage kids. The teacher often has outcomes in mind: knowledge, skills, abilities and understandings children will acquire. But they have not determined an exact path the child must take to get that knowledge.

As Teacher Tom says: “One thing I don’t do is decide what the children will learn… That’s not the job of a teacher… that’s the job of the children. My job is to create an environment, then play with them in it, helping them, but only when they really need it.” Some roles an adult may play are:

  • Stage manager: Sets the stage. Creates an “invitation to play” that combines familiar objects and activities (for repetition/mastery) with novel objects to explore and discover.
  • Observer. Observe quietly. Be there so if they look up with an “a-ha” moment, or an “I did it”, you’re there to reflect that success back to them. A good rule of thumb is to observe for at least 3 minutes before talking. Then make suggestions or ask questions to extend their thinking, or encourage reflection. But don’t change their play, or tell them what their results need to be.
  • Recorder: Ask them to describe what they are doing. (Remember, ask about the process, not the product they’ll end up with.) Write it down to share with a parent or friend later.
  • Facilitator: Help get them the tools they need to accomplish their play plan. Help clear away the “clutter” that gets in the way of their play. Ask more, answer less.
  • Mediator: For children age 3 and up, it’s best to sit back and let kids work out their own conflicts and learn from doing so. But sometimes, especially with younger children, an adult helps resolved conflicts by offering new materials or suggesting alternatives, and modelling flexible thinking needed for peer interactions.
  • Interpreter: help children understand what is meant by another’s words and actions.
  • Participant in play: You follow their lead, respect their individual style of play. Don’t try to make the game your own. Simply be one of the kids who is playing! (As the “big kid” in the group, you can role model respect, creativity, flexibility.)
  • Tools of the Mind style. Kids develop a plan for their pretend play. Teacher offers instruction in pretend play – suggestions specific to the scenario. Kids play. When play comes to an end, the teacher discusses it with them and asks about what they did.
  • Reggio Emilia – inquiry-based or project-based learning style. When your child demonstrates interest in a topic, you collect resources related to it: books, videos, tools, resources for dramatic play related to it. The child chooses a project and must plan their actions, gather information, and develop new ideas. The teacher / parent observes, participates, guides the play when needed, asks questions, and encourages deeper thinking.

A key element of play-based learning is Scaffolding. Development advances and learning occurs when children are challenged to do something just one step beyond their current mastery, and then allowed to practice newly acquired skills. Adults and older children help them make the step by giving a hint, modelling the skill, or adapting materials or activities, and then allowing them to continue to play.

Resources

Read: Brain Rules for Babies, by John Medina.

Collections of resources on Play & Learning: www.naeyc.org/play and www.zerotothree.org/child-development/play/

Watch: The Power of Play documentary: https://vimeo.com/20964066

If you ever find yourself wondering about our class: “Why aren’t they teaching my child anything?? All they do is play!” watch this video to remember everything kids learn when they are playing: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNlW7YIX7pk

Additional Sources Used:

The Playing Learning Child: Towards a pedagogy of early childhood. Samuelsson & Carlsson. 2008  Scandinavian Journal of Education.  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00313830802497265

The Role of Play in Today’s Kindergarten, Lori Jamison. http://lorijamison.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/The-Role-of-Play-in-Todays-Kindergarten.pdf

References to Play in NAEYC Position Statements: http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/ecprofessional/Play%20references%20in%20NAEYC%20position%20statements_10%2009%20update.pdf

Play in the Preschool Classroom: Its Socio-emotional Significance and the Teacher’s Role in Play, Godwin S. Ashiabi1,2 Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 35, No. 2, October 2007. http://leadershiplinc.illinoisstate.edu/play-based-learning/documents/play_in_the_preschool_classroom.pdf

Go Play – Promoting Your Child’s Learning Through Play www.zerotothree.org

Teaching a Play-Based Curriculum by Teacher Tom. http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com/2012/04/teaching-play-based-curriculum.html

What is child-led play? On nature-play.co.uk