Several arguments can support an academic-based preschool and a play-based preschool alike. Join me as I explore both options, the research behind it all, and how I decided for my own preschoolers which curriculum is best.
As a parent I often feel that every decision I make is the biggest decision of my life. Do I feed my kids peas or beans for lunch? Do I put my kids to bed at 7pm or 7:30? Do pedipeds promote healthy foot development? Do magna-tiles allow for enough open-ended play? The list continues.
The biggest, biggest decision lately has been based upon the education of my child. The question at the front of my mind stands in bold letters: Should I design William’s preschool education to be academic-based or play-based?
I brought these options to the table with the preschool co-op. Both were discussed at length and the conversation and decision was a difficult one. Admittedly, it is a conversation I continue to have with myself. I feel myself being pulled into two different directions. Part of me thinks as the former public school teacher that I am. There is a hard push for standardized testing in public schools and my brain encourages academic or skills-based learning. But the other part of me, the mother part who researches everything when it comes to my kids, encourages play-based or child-centered learning.
This conflict is was has inspired my post today. Which is better? Skills-based preschool programs or play-based preschool programs?
Well…it depends on your goals. Ask yourself what you intend for your child to acquire from preschool.
Academic or Skills-Based Preschool
Academic or skills-based programs are teacher directed and managed. This means that children have limited choice in the learning that takes place and how that learning happens.
- It is very structured and routine oriented.
- Teachers extensively plan activities for the children in their classes and guide the children in that learning.
- Children spend the majority of the day learning letters and sounds, colors, shapes, and numbers, as well as participate in handwriting practice.
- Learning drills, the completions of worksheets, and a few art projects are also part of the routine, structured day.
When using this design in preschool, it is aimed at preparing students for kindergarten.
What the Research Says about Academic-Based Curriculum
- Public schools in the United States push for children to learn more at an earlier age.
- Pushing too much academia can cause a child to loose interest and motivation in learning.
- Children who participate in academic-based preschool programs score higher than their peers on standardized tests in kindergarten, but the gap is closed by the end of first grade.
- Children who are enrolled in overly academic programs tend to have more behavior problems than their peers.
Play-Based or Child-Centered Preschool
In a play-based program, children are given the autonomy to choose activities based on their current interests. A child who is interested in dams and bridges may be allowed to spend the majority of her center time at the sand and water table, for example.
- Play-based preschool classrooms are set up in sections, usually having a kitchen area, a play house, a reading nook, a sensory table, a block area, etc.
- Teachers may incorporate academic skills through theme based activities, and may add theme based props to classroom learning centers.
- The main goal is to develop social skills by teacher modeling. In this case the teacher acts more as a facilitator of learning than a lecturer of direct instruction.
- Students’ progress is monitored by their participation in hands-on activities and observational assessments, not by worksheets and drills.
When using this design in preschool, it is aimed at preparing students for life.
What the Research Says about Play-Based Curriculum
- Many European countries don’t begin formal literacy and numeral lessons until the age of at least six, if not seven.
- Play is the context in which children can most optimally learn
- Some experts now claim that one of the greatest predictors of life-long success is a child’s ability to control impulses (self regulation), which is learned in social environments. As aforementioned, social environments are made available through play-based preschool programs.
How to Choose
The question to ask yourself, again, is “What do I want my child to acquire from preschool?”. Understanding your child’s development, individual needs, and special talents will be the key benefactors in making the decision. It is also important to understand what is available to your child in the public school system. What is required in kindergarten and/or first grade will point you in the direction your child needs to go in preschool.
The decision is ultimately yours.
What Did Stay at Home Educator Decide?
I want the preschool time I plan for my children at home to be a balance of both approaches. My decision in this partially lies in the fact that I know I will not home-school my children once they are of formal school age, and that is only after we’ve made it through kindergarten.
The Weight of Kindergarten in my Decision
Kindergarten is not required in my state and our public school district has adjusted the kindergarten program to a full day, every other day. The consequence of this is that kindergartners may go an entire five days without school due to in-service days, holidays and conferences, several times a year (beyond the typical holiday and spring breaks)! This only means that the academic push will be even greater for my kindergartners. I feel more responsible to prepare my children academically before they enter kindergarten. Hopefully then, they can enjoy what they can of the very structured, scripted and researched based curriculum they will be taught.
The Weight of the “Big Picture” in my Decision
On the flip side I know my children will be successful in kindergarten and beyond, regardless of my efforts at academic-based programs in the home. They come from a home with two engaged parents who both have graduate degrees and where there is a strong emphasis on family time, reading, and working. With this structure in mind I know I can be comfortable with a decision to set aside the academics and think more play-based. Through play-based curriculum I want my children to develop social skills that will help them be resilient to the struggles of school and life. In order to educate them in this manner I plan to encourage more creativity, questioning, dreaming, imitating, and sharing. Most experts agree that adults who can take turns, delay gratification, problem solve, acquire flexibility, negotiate conflicts, live with disappointment, and connect with the world around them, lead more successful and happy lives. Looking into my children’s future, I crave a successful and happy life for them. I want to teach them these skills and principles now, in their childhood, to prepare them for what is to come.
A Balance of Both
So, as my regular readers already know, I design my home-school preschooling to be a combination of academic and play-based learning. While I want my children to be avid readers and great mathematicians, I also want them to be inventive and compassionate. This goal will best come through a balance of work and play.
For further reading:Science in Support of Play: The Case for Play-Based Preschool Programs by The Center for Early Childhood Education CMEC Statement on Play-Based Learning by Council of Ministries of Education Canada