Academic vs. Play Based Early Childhood Learning

Academic vs. Play Based Preschool

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 shoes x promote healthy foot development?  Does toy x allow for enough open-ended play?  The list continues.

For example:  Should I design William’s preschool education to be academic based, or play based?

This was a conversation my preschool co-op discussed at length, and it was a difficult one at that, and admittedly, one I continue to have with myself.  Being a former public school teacher, with the hard push of standardized testing, my brain encourages academic or skills based learning.  But being a mother who researches everything when it comes to my kids, my heart (and a fair amount of research) 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, what you intend for your child to get out of preschool.

Academic or Skills Based Preschool

Academic or skills based programs are teacher directed and managed.  This means that children have limited choice in what learning 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.  This design is aimed at preparing students for kindergarten, which seems to be the new first grade.  Children in academic programs will most likely spend the majority of their day learning letters and sounds, colors, shapes and numbers, as well as participating in handwriting practice.  They may also participate in learning drills and complete worksheets in addition to a few art projects.

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.  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, but the main goal of play based preschool programs are often 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.

What the Research Says

  • Public schools in the United States push for children to learn more at an earlier age.
  • 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
  • Pushing too much academia can cause a child to loose interest and motivation in learning.
  • Children who participate in academic based preschool programs often score higher than their peers on standardized tests, but the gap is typically closed by the end of first grade.
  • 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, such as a play based preschool program.
  • Children who are enrolled in overly academic programs tend to have more behavior problems than their peers.

How to Choose

So now as a parent you must decide which kind of program to enroll your child, or you must plan how to mimic the desired program at home.  There are positives and negatives to both academic and play based preschools, and much of the decision may depend on the individual child.

What Did I 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, although kindergarten is not required in my state.  That being said, our public school district has moved to a full day, every other day kindergarten program, which means that due to in-service days, holidays and conferences, several times a year (beyond the typical holiday and spring breaks) kindergarteners go an entire five days without any school!  This only means that the academic push will be even greater for those children.  I feel more responsible to prepare my children academically before they enter kindergarten so they can enjoy what they can of the very structured, scripted and researched based curriculum they will be taught.

On the flip side, I know my children will be successful in kindergarten and beyond regardless of my efforts at home.  They come from a home with two engaged parents who both have graduate degrees, where there is a strong importance based on family time, reading, and working.  So, I set aside the academics and think more play based, think more of how to develop my children’s social skills that will help them be resilient to the demands of school and life.  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.  In educating a child, this means encouraging more creativity, questioning, dreaming, imitating, and sharing.

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, something I think 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

5 thoughts on “Academic vs. Play Based Early Childhood Learning

  1. Very well done post! As I was reading I was thinking “well, I want a balance of both approaches” — and then saw you came to the same conclusion. What’s great about teaching our kids at home for preschool is we can tailor the approach based on what they are doing/feeling that day. On a day that my kids are getting along great, they do a lot more play. On the days when they are looking to me for direction, they enjoy more focused learning. I am not a fan of worksheets or drill, but I’ve found (as I’m sure you have) that there are so many hands-on ways to teach reading, writing, and all the rest.

  2. Great post! I do a combination of both play-based and academic preschool at home. I feel stronger about a more play-based environment so our day consists mostly of that type of routine. However, I encourage writing and find fun ways to teach academics without making them sit down to complete a worksheet. Although, I don’t discourage worksheets. I find ways to entice them to want to do them without turning them off from learning at such a young age. You look at schools in Europe and places like Finland, where they have the highest average reading and math scores, they don’t learn to read until 6 or 7. The Common Core standards sneaking into our schools are making it harder on our Kindergartners, throwing play out the window and stressing them to learn how to read and write. My opinion is 5 is too young to start such anxiety. You have the rest of your life for that. Why can’t we let our kids be kids for awhile?

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