Academic vs. play-based preschool debate fading in favor of intellectual discovery
April 1, 2015 12:00 AM
Jamari Hayden, 5, rings bells during Flo Monroe's preschool class at the Conroy Education Center on the North Side.
Syleena Fraizer, 3, uses a light table to build in Flo Monroe's preschool class at the Conroy Education Center's early childhood program on the North Side.
By Jill Harkins / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Lilian Katz views the debate about whether preschool should be play-oriented or academically oriented from her own but an increasingly embraced perspective.
“You don’t say to preschoolers, ‘What do you know?’ because then they think there’s supposed to be something already in their heads. You say, ‘What do you want to find out?’ ” said the co-director of the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting at the University of Illinois.
“What do you know?” emphasizes academics, including the rote memorization of the alphabet, where a teacher provides a sole correct answer. “What do you want to find out?” requires a child to find his own path to one of many answers through investigation or play.
How preschoolers will be taught becomes an increasingly critical question in the wake of President Barack Obama’s recently announced Preschool for All Initiative and Gov. Tom Wolf’s allocation of an additional $120 million, an 88 percent increase, to early childhood programs in his proposed state budget.
Roberta Schomburg, professor emerita at Carlow University, where she was director of graduate studies in early childhood education for more than two decades, said the play vs. academic debate became particularly prevalent, with preschools labeling themselves as one or the other, since the federal No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001.
"Some people think academics only can be taught when children are sitting still."
“We’re in an age of accountability and the testing culture and this whole accountability issue is making people think we have to do this sooner,” she said.
The dichotomy pitting play against academics depicts academic schools as embracing the resulting “push-down” of concepts previously taught in kindergarten to preschool and play-based schools as rejecting it.
Many researchers and educators believe that this debate is misframed and fading, though Ms. Katz said she still sees parents buying into its logic.
“Because there is this discussion about these two different models, we see people aligning rather than understanding that children are learning about math every day when they play and they’re probably learning about it in a more solid way than if they were manipulating symbols,” said Ms. Schomburg.
The consensus among many such educators is that preschoolers shouldn’t only be lectured or only play endlessly without structure.
“Children should be engaged in learning and moving and playing and experiencing as opposed to sitting at a desk looking at flash cards or engaging only in pen and pencil activity,” said Michelle Figlar, executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children. “Some people think academics only can be taught when children are sitting still.”
The academic approach has been found to offer both short-term success, such as children rattling off the alphabet, and long-term challenges, such as children who learn through lecture and memorization but don’t necessarily understand why things are the way they are.
Ms. Schomburg equates this to building a house without a foundation.
Instead of one or the other, Ms. Katz believes intellectual discovery can combine them.
She offered the example of a kindergarten teacher who asked her students to bring in balls from home. The collection the children created included golf, bowling, volley, soccer, football and ping pong balls, as well as a world globe. She led the class in a discussion analyzing if a globe is a ball even though it doesn’t bounce, if a football is a ball even though it isn’t round and if a ball must be used for play.
After, they broke into groups and analyzed circumference, texture, weight, height of bounce and content of the balls.
Such an exercise, said Ms. Katz, encourages students to ask for academic tools instead of having them forced upon them.
Many early childhood programs are taking heed. Carol Barone-Martin, executive director of Early Childhood Education for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said that curriculum and classrooms in the district’s preschools are set up intentionally “so children can play, but they can play in a way that develops certain outcomes.”
At Shady Side Academy, the dramatic play area is filled with fabric instead of costumes. “Instead of a Snow White costume that can pretty much only be Snow White, that piece of fabric can become a super hero cape, a turban for a fortune teller or a veil for a bride,” said Ellen McConnell, head of Shady Side Academy Junior School.
At Winchester Thurston, preschoolers last year decided they wanted to study firefighters and, according to Ashley Harper, director of Winchester Thurston’s Lower School, “built a fire station in our classroom, visited the fire station nearby and even rescued me through my office window during free play.”
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