There was a mom at my son's preschool—let's call her Phoebe's mom—who used to complain all the time about how much playtime our three-year-olds had. "Why can’t they teach letters at all?” she would ask, almost daily.
The answer was that the school was ideologically play-based. There was intentionally no formal instruction about letters or numbers, and no prescribed art projects with pre-cut shapes and preconceived results. Instead of an obvious curriculum, the teachers engaged with each and every child on their level.
Like Phoebe's mom, many parents want and expect formal teaching as part of their preschooler’s day. But one childhood educator says that's a very bad idea. Erika Christakis, a former professor and childhood educator at Yale University, says kids need more pretend play in their day, not less. In her book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, Christakis argues that young children are spending too much time in schools that are not developmentally appropriate for their age.
Too many preschools are set up “with adult eyes and adult desires,” says Christakis, and are ignoring the way small children learn—which, she says, is through long uninterrupted playtime. For example, studies show that children use more advanced language skills when they are playing supermarket than when they count pictures of grocery carts.
If you've ever sat with a three-year old who is building a zoo for their stuffed animals, you know that they are engaged in some high-level thinking. Educators say that there is deep-rooted learning happening while kids play, even if they do not know their letters or numbers. I had faith that my son’s teachers were teaching a curriculum; it was based on curiosity, empathy and reflection.
“Teachers need to take the time to listen to children’s stories, to laugh with them, to get down on the floor, at their eye level, and figure out what makes them tick," said Christakis in an interview with Yale News. "This kind of respectful observation of what children can (and can’t) do is rare in early childhood settings, where instead too many children receive calibrated doses of highly scripted, one-size-fits-all instruction on boring themes like 'food groups' or the making of an egg-carton caterpillar.” The fact is, it doesn’t matter if a preschooler has shape recognition, but it does matter if they have the complex kills such as symbolic thinking. And that kind of thinking comes from playing—not a teacher holding up a bunch of flash cards.
Christakis is concerned that a content-based preschool system is sucking the enthusiasm for learning out of our kids. “Preschool teaching is still focused on a content-based curriculum rather than on transferable skills that kids can apply to a variety of dynamic settings," she told Yale News. Why is this a problem? Because many preschoolers spend three or more years in daycare before they even start school, she says, and "there’s some evidence that children exposed to the same preschool tedium for multiple years—for example, the dreaded daily tracking of the calendar or unvarying class rules at Circle Time—may actually lose interest in school and fare worse on academic learning outcomes in the later years.”
At heart of the debate is the question: Is preschool a training ground for mini-adults or is it a specific and worthy stage in a child’s life? Christakis is concerned that the line between official school and preschool is disappearing—parents in preschool are already jumping ahead to university admissions and they are losing sight of what's important.
Looking back, I can feel for Phoebe’s mom. She was worried that her child was falling behind; or maybe she wasn’t winning at the competitive sport of comparing your child’s knowledge with other parents. Eventually, Phoebe’s family and some others decamped to another nursery school that had more measurable outcomes, and they had the paint-by-numbers artwork to prove it.
We stayed at our nursery school, happy that those preschool teachers wanted to play zoo for hours. And now I know that they were teaching important skills along the way.
Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.