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Play-Based Preschools May Be Failing Our Kids

Photograph by Twenty20

Take note, parents: Preschool days filled with Play-Doh and pasting projects are a thing of the past. Pre-kindergarten programs nationwide are focusing more on academics and less on simply learning through play.

The move toward heavier academics for 4-year-olds is fueled, in part, by new research. A study following 6,150 students nationwide, conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that preschools are not offering enough of a mix.

“Simply dressing up like a firefighter or building an exquisite Lego edifice may not be enough,” said Bruce Fuller, the lead author of the study. “If you can combine creative play with rich language, formal conversations and math concepts, that’s more likely to yield the cognitive gains we observed.”

They found that by the end of kindergarten, children who had at least one year at an academic-oriented preschool outperformed those tykes who came from a predominantly play-based early learning environment.

These findings make a good argument for moving away from a strictly play-based curriculum in both public and private preschool programs. (It is unclear whether the benefits stretch beyond kindergarten. The study only followed the children for a limited time.)

However, not all child development experts are sold on the idea. At issue is the fact that all children may not be ready to learn how to read or do math that early. Making it mandatory puts a great deal of stress on them. The researchers, aware of this concern, noted that based on their interviews, the children did not appear to be negatively impacted socially or emotionally by more academic programs. In fact, the study (which controlled for income and home environment) showed that academic pre-K benefited both poor and middle-class children.

Despite the benefits, the shift still has many parents concerned. The New York Times reported that during one pre-K info session in Brooklyn Heights, an affluent New York City neighborhood, parents were more concerned with art and music exposure than math or reading skills.

But opponents may have the wrong impression about what constitutes an "academic-oriented" program. The researchers defined it as teachers who reported spending time sounding out words, discussing new vocabulary, counting out loud and teaching how to measure and tell time. That certainly doesn’t seem too stringent and all are important building blocks.

Still, this remains a hot-button issue for parents across the country. With intense academic pressure being a certainty in junior high and high school, many insist on letting kids be kids for as long as possible—or at least until they can tie their own shoes.

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