I spend a lot of time reading and researching preschool education. Even after my husband and I decided we wouldn’t participate in the rat race that preschool education entails in New York, I still spend a lot of time reading about how preschoolers learn, or why they need play, arts, crafts, exercise, and to self-direct their play and interests. I even read up on the preschool methodologies, the Waldorf, the Reggio Emilia, the Montessori, the unschooling, the basic play based and so on. Aspects of each school of thought resonate with me, but what I eventually realized was that I want my children to play and have good experiences as children. I know the schools will stress reading, writing, math, and social studies. I don’t know that they will teach him creativity, or how to explore and experiment in the world on his terms.
When I watch my three year-old son play, I watch him assimilate the world around him. Generally, his favorite toys are not toys at all. He has an old office phone that he uses to pretend to call for a taxi to take him to the Fort Greene playground. One day last week, our corkscrew also served as a pretend phone that he could use to order himself a vehicle and take-out sushi. Earlier this week, he carried around a ladle and serving spoon in his backpack. In the bath, he makes pretend ice cream and tea with the few remaining cups of his infant stacking cups. The lid from the orange juice bottle becomes a muffin he serves me with my “tea.” I gave him foam letters to play with in his bath only to watch him sort them by color, count them, and then put them away. The next night he took his Hot Wheels Carrying Case into the bath and put his letters in the spaces where the cars go. This morning he held up a piece of leftover ribbon and asked, “Can I play with this?”
While he has letters and numbers in his bath and had letters and numbers on the fridge as magnets (before they got lost to the Toss and Scatter game), we don’t quiz him on what they are or what sound they make or what have you. It’s purely about surrounding him with them and letting him explore them on his terms.
Whether it’s in play or education, my husband and I believe in him self-directing his experience. I don’t know exactly what he learns by sitting in a cardboard box and steering while holding a corkscrew to his ear (other than very bad driving habits undoubtedly learned from New York City cab drivers), but I know it’s important to him – otherwise, he wouldn’t do it. Given that he’s three, I trust that he can learn something from everything he does.
Everything I’ve read about how three year old children learn, from David Elkind’s Miseducation: Preschoolers At Risk to Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby, says it’s completely inappropriate to push early reading or math skills on your children, that in the first years what is most important is their social and emotional development, that kids can learn curriculum anytime, but social and emotional experiences to a large extent get hard wired at this stage, and you only get one shot at hard wiring. However, the more I read up on the schools around me in my neighborhood and city, after I read the catch phrases that we’re all familiar with (play based, encouraging creativity, diverse experiences, nurturing environment, etc.) I found that many of the preschools still mention their program will prepare children for school. Even if on the outside it looks like the kids are just playing, they really are gaining reading readiness skills or learning simple addition and subtraction or what have you.
I assume I find this information on preschool websites, school tours, and brochures, because more than one parent voiced their concern that if they allowed their kid to play all the time, how could they possibly be ready for school. Or will their child be behind the other kids who didn’t play all day? Yet I felt confused; if all the research (I’m finding) says young children need to play and pushing curriculum too young can backfire in their social and emotional development as well as their interest in school and learning, then why are the preschools in my area reassuring parents that their child will probably be phonetically reading by age four?
This month’s Scientific American Magazine has an article, “The Death of Preschool” by Paul Tullis focusing on specifically this question. Academics vs. free play in preschool has been a debate among early educators for decades (Silly me. When I started researching all this preschool stuff, I thought it was a recently new concern in early education), and now, as Tullis maintains, there’s research to prove that play is the absolute best way to nourish young children’s educational lives, yet the trend in schools continues to push academics.
I can understand the urge to push academics on young children. I can understand that parents want the best for their children and to have all kinds of opportunities available to them, and one way to get those opportunities is to do well in school. I can understand that no parent wants their child to struggle to learn or experience the feeling of being behind one's peers (or god forbid label themselves as "dumb"). Yet I have to admit, I am left wondering why is it parents don’t trust that interacting with their children is enough to prepare their child for school? Many states now do test children to make sure they’re ready for kindergarten, but isn’t this “being prepared for kindergarten” thing getting a little out of hand? Even those of us who say we don’t push academics on our children still defend our play-focused households with anecdotes about how our kids learned their letters from the subway or that when they break their crayons, they say now they have two crayons, so clearly they are learning math and basic addition. If we were truly play based, we wouldn’t need some result of playtime to reassure ourselves that our children are learning.
The truth is, what impresses me about my son is not that he knows the alphabet or how to count or that when you break a piece of chalk, you then have two. What impresses me is that he can walk into a Starbucks and intuitively know that the bathroom is in the back and walks in that direction when he has to pee. It impresses me when he tells another child on the playground, “That’s not playing nice” or that he doesn’t want to play rough. I’m constantly impressed with his creativity, like how he takes a bunch of pennies and throws them on the floor as he yells, “Money thunder!” and I think, yes, that’s what I want you to do in school, to take two separate ideas and find a way to link them. Today, my son was ill, and my husband and I were impressed that instead of whining or throwing a tantrum, he just went and put himself to bed. The truth is what impresses me about what my son learns and has learned are the things that can’t be measured on any test. While they all contribute to him developing as a human being, I don't know that they are necessarily "preparing" him for kindergarten. But these are all skills he learned from interacting with my husband and me and from playing. So if our children are already learning how to engage with the world from us as parents, playing, and just experiencing life, why can’t we trust that they’ll also learn whatever they need to learn to be ready to start school?