Choosing the right preschool for your child can be an onerous task, especially since academic vs. play-based preschools can be very different.
Here is what research tells us about academic vs. play based preschool programs, the benefits and drawbacks of each, and how to make the best decision for your child.
How to Choose the Right Preschool: Play Based or Academic
It’s late winter or early spring, which means preschools are beginning their fall enrollment. That means parents only have a little time to make a decision about what kind of preschool their child attends without risking the loss of that valuable space. But it seems that today more than ever there are more and more preschool options.
While preschools may all appear bright and welcoming from the parking lot, the program on the interior may be very different.
How do parents know which preschool program is best for their child? Some preschools are heavily skills-based. Others are heavily play based. And yet others are a combination approach.
Several arguments can support an academic-based preschool and a play-based preschool alike. There is no right or wrong answer here. The decision lies in what is best for the individual child.
Academic vs. Play Based Preschool is a Hard Decision
As a parent I often feel that every decision I make is the biggest decision of my life. I know that sounds a little dramatic, and maybe it is. But I seriously worry sometimes if I’m doing this whole parenting thing the right way.
Do I feed my kids peas or beans for lunch? Should I put my kids to bed at 7:00 pm or 7:30? Do these shoes promote healthy foot development? Does this toy allow for enough open-ended play? The list continues.
But one of the very biggest decisions parents have to make is what kind or preschool to enroll their child in. Or maybe parents wonder if they need to homeschool or enroll their child in an in-home preschool.
But the even bigger decision among all of these about early childhood is this:
Academics vs. play based preschool approach?
It was a decision I had to make for my own children, and one I carefully considered when developing the preschool curriculum I use for my in-home preschool.
But Follow Through Can Be Difficult
Here’s the thing.
It might be easy to make up your mind about how much play or academics should be in a typical preschool day, but sometimes it’s hard to follow through with that decision.
It is a conversation I continue to have with myself and my preschool colleagues. With the landscape of education continually changing, I feel myself being pulled in 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.
So in this conflict, which is better? Skills-based preschool programs or play-based preschool programs?
Well…it depends on your goals. And it depend on who your child is. Ask yourself what you intend for your child to acquire from preschool.
What is Academic or Skills-Based Preschool?
Academic or skills-based programs are teacher directed and managed. This means that children have less choice in the learning that takes place and how that learning happens.
Academic preschools more closely resemble typical schools. Teachers lead students through a series of prescribed lessons and activities. While students still have some playtime, the overall experience is more structured.
This type or approach to preschool aims to ensure students are academically prepared for kindergarten.
What to Expect From an Academic Based Preschool
Even academic preschool programs can vary greatly, but here are some things that most will have in common.
- 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 and other academics.
- Learning drills, the completion of worksheets, and a few art projects are also part of the routine, structured day.
- Academic-based programs are very heavy in higher structure vocabulary, leaving nothing to chance.
- Skills-based preschool classrooms are rich in language. Walls re used to display learning posters rather.
- Children spend a fair amount of their day “working” and learning.
- Academic-based programs are more about the product and outcome.
When using this design in preschool, it is aimed at preparing students for kindergarten.
This is especially helpful for children from low-income families and for children whose parents have a lower degree of education. In this case, the earlier the intervention, the better.
But what about the kids from middle or upper-class homes? Researchers found that those children had similar academic gains through the end of kindergarten, but faded afterward, and found no gains in social or emotional development among these children.
What the Research Says about Academic-Based Curriculum
- Public schools in the United States push for children to learn more and more at an earlier age.
- Pushing too much academia can cause a child to lose 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 for most by the end of kindergarten, and for all by the end of first grade.
- Children who are enrolled in overly academic programs tend to have more behavior problems than their peers. This can be due to the socioeconomic status of children typically enrolled in skills-based programs, or it can be due to push-back from the child.
- While academic programs do not focus on social or emotional development, there is no research that states the academic push hinders those naturally developing skills.
- Small groups of targeted learning increases outcomes in preparation for kindergarten.
Questions to Ask About An Academic Preschool Curriculum
Given the information above, choosing a traditional academic based preschool might be the best option for your child. Remember, this is a personal choice. Here are some questions to ask yourself when considering a more skills-based preschool program.
- How will my child be learning the academics?
- worksheets? teacher lectures? field trips? gross motor activities? class games?
- How much time will my child spend sitting and listening versus getting up and doing?
- What kinds of activities are directed by the teacher and to what extent?
- For example, are crafts to be copied exactly? Is tracing to be done with precision?
- How much choice will my child have over what they are learning throughout the day?
- What penalties will there be for if my child chooses not to participate?
- What kind of evidence (paperwork) will the program show for my child’s learning?
- worksheets? student portfolios? teacher observations?
- What perimeters will determine if this program is not the right fit? How will I know?
Most importantly, when considering a specific preschool program, ask for a tour of the facility. Take notice of what is displayed on the walls. Listen closely to the language the administrators when discussing the “right kind of child” for their program. Finally, ask to observe a class in session. The happiness of the children spills all the secrets!
What is Child-Centered or Play-Based Preschool?
In a play-based program, children are given the autonomy to choose activities based on their current interests. The term “play-based” is often interchanged with “child-centered.” Play based learning preschool are where kids tend to spend a lot of time interacting with other kids.
This does not mean that children play while the teachers sit back and chat over coffee. Preschool teachers provide a carefully curated learning environment where children are able to explore academics naturally through free choice centers, games, and invitations to play.
What to Expect From an Play Based Preschool
- 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. Much of the class time is made up of free-choice centers, where children go to one of these areas in the classroom and “play”.
- 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 and emotional skills by teacher modeling.
- The teacher acts as a facilitator of learning rather 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.
- Play-based classrooms are more about the process of learning and are less concerned about the product. Teachers work hard to create an atmosphere of discovery, exploration and appropriate risk-taking.
- Many play-based preschool programs invite children to help decide which topics will be taught. Space or oceans this month?
- Academics are taught by weaving literacy and math into all learning areas. For example, the dramatic play center will have a pad of paper and some pencils to make a grocery list when set up like a grocery store, or the sensory table might have play dough and rocks when learning about the Great Wall of China in an around the world preschool theme.
When using this design in preschool, it is aimed at developing children’s social and emotional skills and the related learning skills that prepare children for formal schooling. Children spend most of their day interacting with one another.
Many familiar preschool approaches are strongly play-based. Reggio-Emilia, Waldorf, parent co-ops, and even some Montessori programs are all examples.
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, so their early childhood education is steeped in play.
- Play is the context in which children can most optimally learn, because it is the most efficient way for young children to process information.
- 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.
- A worthwhile play-based program will have teachers engaging or adding on to children’s play, not dictating it.
- Rich language and math skills must be carefully thought-out.
Read more about the studies that back up these findings here: Play-Based Learning: Evidence-Based Research to Improve Children’s Learning Experiences in the Kindergarten Classroom by Meaghan Elizabeth Taylor & Wanda Boyer.
Questions to Ask About A Play-Based Preschool Curriculum
Given the information above, choosing a play based learning environment might be the best option for your child. Again, this is a personal choice. Here are some questions to ask yourself when considering a more play-based preschool program.
- What does learning look like through play?
- How will I know my child is learning? What evidence will document my child’s learning?
- What are the goals of this specific play based preschool?
- What makes this play based preschool program different from others? How will those differences serve my child?
- How are academics integrated throughout the play?
- How much free choice will my child have in their learning versus how much is teacher directed?
- What happens if my child does not want to participate?
How to Choose Between Academic or Play Based Preschool Programs
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.
You know your child the best, and there is not right or wrong answer here. Some children thrive in play-based preschool programs, and some are happier in skills-based programs.
And you might find that the differences in learning opportunities might be better for one of your children, and not the other. For example, my daughter would have thrived in an academic based preschool program. My youngest son, however, absolutely needed a play based preschool curriculum.
Quality vs Quantity
As with everything else of importance, quality matters.
It’s important to note that the quality of the program has a definitive impact of how successful it will be for your child. One approach to learning does not make the quality of the program better than the other.
For example, a play based program with little interaction from the teacher is no higher quality than an academic based program where children do worksheets all day long.
Regardless of the teaching method you choose for your child, what matters most is how deep the learning is. How interactive is the teacher?
How to Make the Big Decision
Making the decision is not an easy one. But, if one approach doesn’t completely feel right, then maybe it isn’t.
For example, when designing my own in-home program, I knew I wanted learning at home to be a balance of both approaches. It’s also true that I want my children and preschoolers to have short times of structured (and teacher directed) learning activities in addition to valuable play experiences.
Considerations for Deciding
After reading about the differences between the two program philosophies, I knew I wanted a combination of both. I knew that the preschool parents attracted to my program wanted a combination of both.
I didn’t want it to be just academic OR play based preschool. Here are some considerations I made.
What kind of learning demands will my child have as a kindergartener?
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)!
And during the Snowpocalypse of 2017, my daughter was out of school for 42 days straight because of Christmas break and snow days that fell on her school days.
This only means that the academic push will be even greater for kindergartners in my state. 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 curriculum they will be taught. They will enter kindergarten with a strong foundational knowledge in literacy and mathematics, therefor making the rigorous curriculum easier to learn.
How does our home environment impact the 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. In our home, there is a strong emphasis on family time, reading, and working. We are a typical middle-class family.
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 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.
You Don’t Have to Choose Between the Two
So, as my regular readers already know, I designed my home-school preschool 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 with a balance of work and play.
What are your thoughts when it comes to academic vs. play based preschool programs?
You can Have it All!
Due to reader requests, I have developed a preschool curriculum for parents and teachers who want a balance between academic and play. In this curriculum, you get the brass tacks of all the academics to prepare your child for kindergarten so you can focus on all the play to help your preschooler grow socially and emotionally.
Science in Support of Play: The Case for Play-Based Preschool Programs by The Center for Early Childhood Education
Academic vs. Play-Based Preschool Debate Fading in Favor of Intellectual Discovery by Jill Harkins of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Free Play or Flashcards? New Study Gives Nod to More Rigorous Preschools by Dana Goldstein of New York Times
CMEC Statement on Play-Based Learning by Council of Ministries of Education Canada
I’m Sarah, an educator turned stay-at-home-mama of five! I’m the owner and creator of Stay At Home Educator, a website about intentional teaching and purposeful learning in the early childhood years. I’ve taught a range of levels, from preschool to college and a little bit of everything in between. Right now my focus is teaching my children and running a preschool from my home. Credentials include: Bachelors in Art, Masters in Curriculum and Instruction.