Exposing Preschool Philosophies- Play Based vs. Academic

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood”
-Fred Rogers

It’s not a surprise to say that parents do the best they can to provide for their children’s futures. I had my first child during the hype of Baby Einstein, Black and White Genius Baby Toys, Gymboree Classes and Mommy Play-Groups starting at 6 weeks old. I belong to the parenting era of endless waitlists and mommy coffee/yoga-pant conversations. I remember pushing my stroller into a play-group with a Starbucks in hand. It didn’t take long to realize that my son had a very full-schedule pretty soon out of the womb. How did I get here?

Opinions and questions swirled in these circles and I soon dove further into the complex thoughts and feelings of parenthood. Yes, I made good lifelong friends but I also took with me the multifaceted dichotomy this parenting day-in-age brings of what I hoped and dreamed for my little babe contrasted with a looming feeling of what the world expected.

Even though I’m an educator who counsels parents for a living- this was in fact my first baby. Talk about making the job real, hands-on and identifying with your work environment. It was a tremendous blessing for me to see life and the world from the perspective as both an educator/clinician and as a parent after many years in the classroom and in administration. As a first time mother I began asking internal questions many parents ask like- “will my child measure-up in this world? And “am I doing enough for him?”

I often wondered as a young mother how we see ourselves involved in making these lifelong decisions that impact our children’s futures?
Will the conflict we find within ourselves, as parents ever resolve? 

I found myself asking questions as a first-time mom. Pondering uncertainties about daily decisions much more my first time around than I do now with my third child as this is my last time at the batters box.

“Should I give him peas or carrots? Which is better as one of the first foods? Do we play soccer or t-ball? What would enhance grit and teamwork? Is today a hoodie or a raincoat day? When looking at todays forecast and my child’s overall health, which overcoat is more appropriate? Play based or academic in early childhood education? Isn’t this just preschool? Or is it more than that? This is the first time my child is regularly separated from mom and dad, forming bonds with peers and adults. Which philosophy will better prepare him for future success.”

 Too Much, Too Soon?

My personal focus with my own children was not specifically asking the question of play based or academic- but because I resonate with other parents and the learning curves associated with the journey of parenting, I identify with the effort it takes to overcome and embrace these educational paradigms and make the choices best for our kids.

Over the past fifteen years of parent counseling I have witnessed many moms and dads contemplate and struggle over the topic of play based vs. academics in early education. Spending hours in conversation with parents over this issue and despite decades of research following early studies that suggest that preschool programs with significant play capacities advance to academic results that are at least equal and, usually superior than their counterparts utilizing direct instruction, I still saw many parents push academic mediums on their kids and advocate for more academics in the classroom even when their children were enrolled in play based programs.

I have begun to draw some conclusions that Americans are simply captivated with getting ahead and providing the best for their little tots. In many cases, because of culture, communities and circumstances people believe getting their children ahead in early education may be interpreted as providing what appears to be trickle-down academics at a young age. For families who elect this method, this means more tutoring, memorization and direct-teacher- instruction in the classroom with less unstructured play and social/emotional outcomes.

I’ve been surprised to learn over my career tenure that in many communities parents now pay the highest dollar in the academic mediums such as reading, spelling, math and writing to coach their children toward further preparation. It’s not unusual to find parents enrolling their children in private tutoring classes as young as 2.5 or 3 years old.

To make a case for the extreme, “It’s practically been relegated to superstar status in the annals of parenting lore: the Manhattan mom who sued her daughter’s $19,000-a-year preschool on grounds that the 4-year-old was not sufficiently prepared to tackle the entrance test for private kindergarten.” (i)

Play Based or Academic? 

If you find yourself in the early years of parenting, in one of those impromptu mommy conversations or in a baby mommy group pondering these questions about play-based vs. academic early childhood programs here is a quick overview of the difference.

First, you will probably find as you look around in your community for early childhood schools that there are far more play-based programs available than there are academic schools. This is not an accident. While there is a bit of controversy about which approach prepares children for better academic and overall outcomes, research continues to guide the social, psychological, educational and parent communities by confirming that play based programs compliment children’s way of learning.

 According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which advances excellence in early childhood education, “Young children learn best through direct sensory encounters and not through a formal academic process. Learning should be the outcome of hands-on experience, especially play.” (ii)

 Developmental (Play-Based, Project-Based, Learning-Through-Play)

High quality early childhood programs encourage children to think critically about situations and professional educators are typically open-ended, as they believe in life-long-learning. Teachers support creativity as a matter of process vs. product so that students may achieve and thrive in a multifaceted, dynamic and demanding social world. Focused play that is led emergently by children often through projects and scaffolded by adults is developmentally appropriate and is a substantial component of any superior early childhood program. Play is a method of learning for children. Children do not need to be interrupted to learn. Play is a natural way of expression, receiving the world and communicating. During a typical preschool day in a truly developmental, play-based program there will be structured and unstructured periods, empowering children to learn at their own rate. The following list highlights the significance of play-based environments in a child’s cognitive, social, emotional, approaches-to-learning, academic, and physical well-being and development:(iii)

Philosophical View of Children

  • Children gain knowledge by increasing knowledge
  • Children are encouraged to use their words, make choices & decisions
  • Children are thinkers, problem-solvers & social/emotional beings with inherent value
  • Focused Play is when children learn to process & reflect their efforts

Environments that Support Focused Play

  • Materials of various size, color, shape
  • Blocks, dramatic & imaginative play, manipulative/table toys, art & sensory, library area, music & movement, cooking, music, outdoor, soft spaces, writing & a print-rich environment

 Traditional (Academic)

In a Traditional or more Academic early education approach the focus is on teacher-centered instruction, often theme-based curriculum that is heavily teacher created with little student influence. Sometimes teachers create curriculum by season, month, time-of-year, holiday, or other general theme or genre. Students are typically matched by age and possibly grouped by ability although this can vary from school-to-school. Typically, in a traditional approach students in the class are taught the same material, curriculum or theme with very little ability to vary by student interest. Instruction is based on pre-written curriculum (textbooks, teacher-directed instruction) and mostly individual or at-times group work that is written (academic and may include a mild or moderate degree of worksheets. This too can vary to a degree by school method and philosophy. Subjects in the classroom are typically independent of each other and rarely there is little connection existing from subject-to-subject, this too is philosophically intentional. Often there is a focus on memorization of facts and objective information is shared although some schools embrace programs that encourage critical-thinking and a balance of group work to rote learning. Traditional schools can be child-centered and play based as well if there is a concentration of play within the implementation of the curriculum. (iv)

Fundamentals of Traditional Education

In Mathematics:

  • Highly emphasize basic facts and mastering step-by-step processes. Typically one correct answer is sought. Some traditional schools have embraced more critical-thinking programs.
  • Mathematics is taught in it’s own discipline. Practical applications in science and technology may be utilized in upper grades.

In Science:

  • Typically fact-based, lab-based with experiments to follow-up with demonstrating knowledge through assessment, written work and reading.

In Language:

  • Typically focus is on precise teaching to sound to letter relationship rules and methods as well as deciphering individual words. Once students have mastered phonetical skills and basic reading/writing they move on to more extensive creative work, comprehensive reading/writing and the involvement of additional languages in older age groups. Typically the first 3 years of school are learning to read and beyond- reading to learn.

Which is Better?

This is not a definitive answer. Many early childhood programs are actually a blend of philosophies and education theory creating distinctive, beautiful pedagogy unique to their own programs. The term academics in an early childhood program is not inappropriate or incorrect simply because of what is taught. Academics as single subjects of reading, writing, math, science and so on should all be robust aspects of any early childhood program. What is important for parents and educators to focus on is approach and implementation. What guides critical thinking? Are children thinkers, problem-solvers and natural creators of the curricula?

 A common misconception parents might have about child-centered curriculum is that children don’t learn through play. This is simply not the case- they do! Even with the best of goals, it can be hard to know what’s appropriate for our kids. But when we look at the resounding research supporting the advantages of play, maybe the most significant thing for parents to hear is that they can ultimately unwind a bit and let kids go back to doing what they’ve always done. Play!

 I asked these questions of myself as a young mother- I often wonder how do we see ourselves involved in making important lifelong decisions that impact our children’s futures? Will the conflict we find within ourselves, as parents ever resolve? Now, many years and three children later I think the answer is we actually evolve as people and as parents. Like all of life, parenting is a constant learning journey where we can look back at where we’ve been and use our knowledge and experiences to inpart wisdom and continue to inspire love, understanding, compassion and encouragement into the lives of our children.

  • (i)Rochman, Bonnie Time Magazine “In Preschool, What Matters More: Education or Play? 23 March 2011.
  • (ii) National Association for the Education of Young Children (naeyc.org)
  • (iii )References: Adapted; NAEYC, Evanston Early Childhood Directors’ Council, POSITION STATEMENT: THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAY TO CHILDREN’S LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT IN EARLY CHILDHOOD PROGRAMS…”Playing to Learn/Learning to Play”)
  • (iv)  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditional_education
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