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St. Rita’s Catholic School in New Orleans, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

Which kind of preschool is more beneficial for young children: academic or play-based? Recent research has breathed new life into a debate that has been around for decades.

For many parents and policymakers worried that children are being pushed into structured learning too early, there’s immediate concern when the word academics is associated with preschool.

Children need to have fun, be creative and make their own choices, they say. To them, the term academics connotes flashcards and a rigid, constrained environment. It’s the opposite of letting kids be kids and enjoying a childhood that will soon enough confront homework, lectures, testing, and sitting in desks all day.

Many of the parents who object to academic preschool are engaging in the very activities with their own children that are effective in laying the foundation for learning. They introduce numbers to their toddlers, counting fingers and toes, read to them and engage in conversations that are helping them develop the vocabulary they need to be good readers, point out letters on signs and play games like chutes and ladders that teach counting.

But many children do not have the opportunity to engage in these kinds of rich learning experiences, and thus begin school unprepared for the educational program they encounter.

Related: African-American boys who tell better stories as preschoolers may learn to read more quickly

“In the 1960s, policymakers and educators became concerned about the substantial gap of more than a year in school readiness between children living in poverty and their more affluent peers.”

What we know about teaching and learning has evolved to provide a research-based alternative that can satisfy people on both sides of the debate: purposeful instruction that supports deep learning in a playful, engaging and fun way. We can offer academic preschool without a single flashcard or worksheet. But engaging in purposeful playful instruction with a group of children requires a great deal of skill – much more than either just letting kids play or giving them worksheets.

The question we should be asking is not either/or, but rather what will it take to bring about a substantial evolution in practice?

Historically, preschool was a few hours a day, a few days a week. The purpose for children was mostly socialization, not academic learning.

Related: Why is it so hard to stop suspending kindergarteners?

In the 1960s, policymakers and educators became concerned about the substantial gap of more than a year in school readiness between children living in poverty and their more affluent peers. Preschool learning became an issue of equity, and the federal government responded by creating Head Start to address the school-readiness gap.

Additional pressure on preschools to prepare children academically came from K–12 accountability policies — George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, morphing into Every Student Succeeds Act under Barack Obama.

“Young children need to be free to choose and explore on their own. But they also possess a natural curiosity and capacity to learn that, research shows, a skilled educator can harness.”

Throughout these changes, the play vs. academics debate persisted, with proponents on both sides voicing strong opinions. Those who dismissed exclusively play-based learning cited concerns about the school readiness gap, and pointed to research showing that direct instruction proved most effective in promoting basic math and reading skills.

Resistance to an academic focus came from two central concerns: that the focus on academic learning would crowd out attention to children’s social-emotional development, and that stress over academic outcomes or performance would squelch children’s natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation to learn.

A New Way Forward

Consider the following activity that I saw unfold in a classroom of 4 year olds:

The teacher maps a 6’ x 10’ grid on a shower curtain, which she spreads on the floor. She asks the children to take off one shoe and sort all of the shoes into six piles — sandals, slip-ons, shoes with laces, etc. Then, in the bottom row of the grid, they place one shoe from each pile in its own square, followed by the rest of the shoes from that category, one each in the squares above the first shoe. After the children count the number of shoes in each column, the teacher asks them what they notice, and the children discuss which columns are longer and shorter and which categories have the most and the fewest shoes. She follows up with questions: Are there any categories that have the same number of shoes? How many more sandals than slip-ons are there?

For the children, this is a game; they do not know they are experiencing instruction. The teacher, however, planned the lesson to help children develop particular math skills, including categorization, counting, graphing, and measurement.

In addition to math, the children are developing social skills — negotiating the shoe classification system, collaborating in creating the columns of shoes and learning to take turns to answer the teacher’s questions.

Young children need to be free to choose and explore on their own. But they also possess a natural curiosity and capacity to learn that, research shows, a skilled educator can harness.

Related: Can a pre-K boom in D.C. help to end school segregation?

They can learn a great deal about math, literacy and science. Carefully planned activities with clear learning goals and a developmental progression can nurture young children’s enthusiasm and motivation for learning.

Since research confirms that these well-crafted and playful learning experiences help children develop important and foundational skills and understandings, why aren’t they more common in preschool settings?

One reason is that few teachers are provided with the training and support they need to plan and execute these activities, especially in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Appropriate and effective learning experiences for young children require preschool teachers to master the material they are teaching and know how to plan activities that will help grow the skills of children with varying learning styles and levels of understanding.

Related: Digital storybooks might be just as good as an adult reading to a child

Teachers also need to know how to provide an emotionally secure social context and support the development of self-regulation and social skills while promoting academic skills.

We need to move the conversation beyond play versus academic preschool, and focus on the kind of playful learning researchers have shown contributes to young children’s academic skills without undermining their motivation to learn.

To do this we will need to invest in training and supporting the teachers we expect to implement this demanding approach to teaching.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Deborah Stipek is the Judy Koch Professor of Education and former dean at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. She chairs Development and Research in Early Math Education, a network of scholars across the country who seek to advance opportunities for quality early math learning for all children.

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4 Letters

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  1. Why are we making such a fuss. It is just learning through play combining both. Children have been learning through play even before they come to school. It is their natural mode of learning. We just need to redirect it to make them learn basics of language & math.

  2. I am a preschool teacher at Estes Elementary in Owensboro Kentucky. Wonderful article that really hits home with us!! We use a science based curriculum that focuses on hands on learning through experiments and experiences. When these 4 and 5 year- olds are engaged and learning through play these big concepts like: simple machines, properties of matter, and lights/shadows/reflections, are remembered. I would love to send you a brochure about our program if you would like. We are very passionate about this topic and thankful that you share the philosophy, THANK YOU!!

  3. I am so happy to see this article, as I am so tired of the debate over academics vs. “play-based”. Can’t children have BOTH??? I am a long-time early childhood teacher, now retired and working as an independent contractor. One organization I work with is Minnesota Reading Corps (a branch of Americorps). In the Pre-K program, they utilize and Curriculum called SEEDS, which is, on one hand, the qualities a teacher exudes, and on the other hand, the literacy skills children need to be successful readers by third grade. It is BOTH social-emotional AND academic.
    Thank you for this article!! I will share it.

  4. Thanks to Dr. Stipek for breaking down the false dichotomy between academic and play-based preschools. To see an example of a program that prepares children for academic learning through free choice, social/emotional support, and play, check out your nearest Montessori school. Montessori education has been supporting joyful, playful, deep learning for over 100 years. As Dr. Stipek said, significant investment in teacher training is required, but the results for children bring uncountable returns on that investment.

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