Early Childhood Education: What Is Its Goal?
Reposted from NAIS.org — May 25, 2016
I vividly remember one preschool open house I attended in Manhattan, although it occurred more than 30 years ago. After the school’s director gave a short presentation on the school’s philosophy and approach, it was time for questions.
One parent asked: Will my child learn to read or at least learn her letters and do math? Another parent asked: Will my child be afforded an opportunity to learn a second language? A third asked about the track record for admission to elite K–12 private schools.
I am not kidding. And this was a school for three- and four-year-olds.
I remember the director’s answers, too. In a nutshell, she said, “Our goal is to enrich the lives of your children, to help them experience the creative nature that rests within. And that means we do not focus on letters or reading or foreign languages, although many other preschools do. And our students do well when they leave us.”
That was all I needed to hear. That was the school for our child.
Today’s Debate About Early Childhood Education
More recently, high-profile discussions, the media, and the Obama administration have focused on the need for universal pre-K education and for increased learning opportunities for young children. Many have rightly suggested that we can only address the educational achievement gap if we start early by providing quality early childhood education for all children across the income spectrum. If we do not move to close the achievement gap early between low- and high-income children, it will continue to grow as children age. This gap will carry into adulthood, and will be reflected in negative differentials in earnings, health, community participation, and happiness.
Where the rubber really meets the road is in the question “What is quality early childhood education?” Many people couch the issue in terms of whether we should promote “academics” early on, or whether preschool should foster different, “nonacademic” skills?
What surfaces next are the issues of testing skill development and kindergarten readiness and whether these approaches provide good measures of the skills children need. However, no national consensus exists about what constitutes “readiness,” leading to differing standards from state to state.
The debate often pitches early childhood education as a choice between an academic philosophy and a play philosophy, as if these approaches are dichotomous. People say academic early childhood education is teacher-directed learning while play-oriented early education is more student-centered.
A Closer Look at Play v. Academics
I think the whole debate about an academic or a play philosophy is misframed.
Let’s start with this fact: We do not have a consensus on what constitutes “academics” for three- and four-year-olds. Does academics consist of teaching letters and numbers and perhaps even reading? Or can academics be about conducting science experiments and exploring the outdoors and building with blocks? Can academics be non-teacher-centered, and can play have some teaching and learning focus?
I say yes to the last question for two primary reasons: the existing literature and empirical data on “play” and my own in-the-trenches experiences reading a children’s book I wrote, Lady Lucy’s Quest, to hundreds of kids ages 3–11.
First, research shows that children learn through play — and that play can have goals. For example, it can lead to academic understandings as well as emotional, social, and physical development. Outdoor play, common in Europe, can provide understandings of our world — from seasons to plant growth to animal life and habitats. Indeed, some think about the outdoors as a classroom. What’s more, when children struggle psychologically, we now accept that “play therapy” is the best approach for helping children resolve issues. Quality research-based literature suggests that early academic learning is harmful and that the academic skills young children learn are short-lived.
Second, the very act of storytelling augments imagination. Here’s an example: At one point in the Lady Lucy story, the feisty female multiracial heroine goes into the dark, dangerous forest for one whole day and night. All she can bring with her is what she can fit in a small orange sack. When reading this aloud to children, I show them an orange sack and ask them what they would stash in it if they were going into the forest for a day and night. Some mention food; others say weapons; some mention water; several talk about a flashlight. Together, we see that deciding the sack’s contents involves thinking creatively, solving problems, and determining priorities.
A story can also augment language learning and involve playing with language. The Lady Lucy story is filled with alliteration, and kids can identify the concept even if they do not know the word “alliteration.” During one reading, I had them tap their knees whenever they heard an alliteration. Children can also invent their own alliterative words. Rhyming words can work the same way. I’d call that learning through play.
The Quest to Preserve Children’s Sense of Wonder
In our competitive, test-driven world, I am not so sure we are willing to embrace play as the key aspect of early childhood education. It is so easy for people to trivialize play and wonder if their children are learning anything at all — as if learning is encapsulated in the alphabet and numbers and clear handwriting.
In addition, if a parent had an academic experience in his or her own childhood, it may be difficult to accept play, especially if the parent wants to ensure his or her child is well-prepared for all the schooling ahead. How often do we hear about the importance of building a firm foundation?
For me, the real foundation lies in developing a child’s imagination, curiosity, and engagement. Play cultivates the capacity to take risks and try again. That’s what falling block towers teach you.
Here I am reminded of the poignant and persuasive approbation from the famed naturalist and author Rachel Carson. In her remarkable book, The Sense of Wonder, she notes (and I intentionally quote at length):
“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later year… the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
In the absence of a good fairy, the only way I know to preserve that sense of wonder is through quality and thoughtful play. And what could be more important than for children to develop a love of learning? Aren’t those the creative, imaginative, and experientially inclined children we hope to admit to and educate in our institutions?