The Preschool Balancing Act

My two play related posts from last week, Why Do We Keep Ignoring This Message? and Playful Learning, sparked many interesting comments from readers (please note, in this post I use the word ‘preschool’ to encompass all prior-to-school age learning programs which may also be called kindergarten, pre-primary, prep, transition or may form some part of a long day care program, depending upon which state/country you live in).

I received an email from a new reader, a teacher of 3-4 year olds, from which I have taken this excerpt;

“I have been overwhelmed by the desire of some parents to push their children so hard and (in my opinion) prematurely into the formal academic world. There are so many children in both groups who are doing “jolly phonics” etc., and some demand for me to teach reading, writing, and even a request for some ‘worksheets’ to get then ready for school. I am reconsidering my beautiful indoor/outdoor program because parents are worried their children are “just spending all day playing in the dirt”. I have had 2 parents withdraw from the kinder to put their children in Early Learning Centres at a Private school (attracted by the specialist teachers, uniforms, more academic curriculum). I feel almost every day that my dearly held play-based principles are under siege!”

I completely understand where this reader is coming from, as a teacher and as a child care centre director, I was continually reassuring parents that their children were learning, albeit in a hands-on, fun and interesting way.

I also found this comment thought provoking;

As a mum I have serious concerns about pushing [child’s name] too hard too early. At the moment our debate is, do we send her to prep or keep her home for that “extra” year? Four is incredibly young to be dressing her up in a uniform and sending her off to five days a week of school. On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if she’s going to be “behind” her peers because I don’t flash card her. It’s really horrible to feel like you’re going to fail your child no matter what you do.

And now that I am a Mum, I can completely relate to this comment as well, we are all doing our best as parents to ensure that our child has the best possible start that they can, we do not want our child to be disadvantaged by anything we did or did not do as parents.

So we now have a situation where when it comes to what a preschool program should look like and incorporate, it is like early childhood teachers are being forced onto a highwire or precariously balancing a set of scales.

On one side of the scales is the Readiness for School Approach where priority is placed on cognitive development and the acquisition of knowledge, skills & dispositions and there is a heavy weighting towards academic curriculum content. The disadvantage inherent in this approach – such programs are poorly suited to the psychology and natural learning strategies of prior to school aged children.

Unfortunately, this is the side of the scales that many parents today value.

On the opposite side of the scales is a Social Pedagogy Approach. Here the pre-schooling years are seen as a broader preparation for life and the foundation stage of lifelong learning and the curriculum is child-centred and holistic (considering the development of the child across all areas – physical, social, emotional, creative, language, cognitive).

This is what qualified teachers know is best for the learning needs of young children prior to formal school age (Adapted from OECD Starting Strong II).

I think we as a society need to get our head around the fact that pre-school is part of the child’s lifelong journey of learning and not simply preparation for the next phase. It is about learning about the world, including literacy and numeracy, in ways that are appropriate to young children.

Consider a small group of five year olds playing Uno with their teacher. They are learning about recognising and naming numerals and colours. They are learning that printed symbols represent information and instructions, essential for both literacy and numeracy. They are learning to be a functioning member of a group by taking turns and assisting each other. They are learning whilst playing.

Or consider the map below drawn by a group of 4-5 year olds following a walking excursion from their pre-school to the local bakery (drawn on a large sheet of butchers paper). The purpose of the map was to help direct a group of peers who would also be visiting the same bakery the following day.

To complete this map the children were;

  • recalling information from memory of the experience
  • expressing their opinions and ideas
  • respecting each others opinions and ideas
  • working in productive co-operation, as a team
  • using symbols to represent information and instructions
  • demonstrating an understanding of spatial relationships, in terms of what goes where on the map.

The actual product, the map, may not look that impressive to someone who does not know the story of how it came into being but it was an important teaching/learning experience in this preschool classroom. Did the children realise they were learning all this? In all likelihood, no, they thought that they had enjoyed a wonderful excursion to the bakery and were helping out their friends so they could go too. The point is, they were learning all this whilst engaged in playful enterprise with their teacher. And the preschool day is comprised of many, many of these types of appropriate learning experiences.

I will leave you will a thought from the OECD Starting Strong II report;

Children should learn the same in preschool as in later schooling, according to their age.

This does not mean that three year olds should start with the alphabet, but rather should be guided into the meaning of symbolic communication. It does not mean that four year olds have to identify all numerals, but to experience numbers in their world and to see the world around them in relational, mathematical terms. Or that five year olds should vote, but be introduced to democratic principles of living as a member of society.

What are your thoughts?

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  1. SquiggleMum says:

    I love, love, love the quote you closed with. That says it all for me.

    My daughter will start kindy in Qld next year. We just spent an afternoon at kindy meeting the teacher and I was so pleased to hear the play message come across loud and clear.

  2. Super Sarah says:

    Again, thank you for this discussion. Its so timely for us, we are off to Amy's preschool orientation tomorrow. As of January she starts two days a week at a small, local preschool where the emphasis is on play, nurture and caring. I hope she is able to develop her social skills, make some friends, enjoy the awesome play equipment and learn to be independant from me. Thats what it should be about!

  3. Wonderful!!! Big Pat coming for your back and a kiss on both cheeks.

    I have focused my childrens lives around play, for those who know me, know I have turned my house into one massive childrens world. Books, toys, craft are everywhere. They have such a short amount of time to be kids why not let them enjoy it.

  4. I love play based learning, in preschool and then into the first year of "uniformed" schooling. I like jolly phonics, but think that Kindergarten rather than preschool is a better age to introduce it (I don't like letterland heh… some programs appeal some don't – I thin kids get too stuck on the letter land characters.. but I've on a tangent).

    I think experiential learning is valuable at all levels of the curriculum, obviously higher level maths is tricky, but rote learning doesn't appeal to most adults, let alone kids' styles!

  5. Narelle Nettelbeck says:

    We are absolutely play based here in my home with my 2 boys and in my Family Day Care.

    Great posts.

  6. Shouldn't we consider the "why" of education. Shouldn't the reasons be just to allow their little sponge of a brain to take in everything around them. We lost the purpose of education centuries ago when it became driven by the purpose to create a worker bee.

    I love the ideas in "Ishmael" if you are looking for a book series to read.

  7. This scenario that you have posted for discussion is very similar in Malaysia context.
    Yes! The early years education is turning into a field of academic realm! Most parents will withdraw their children if the programme is all about play or activity based.
    Our Ministry of Edu just revamped the curriculum for Preschool and hoping that it will help to create a balance. But it's also reflecting onto the parents them self. We should educate the parents first on how children learn.
    It's really depressing thinking how the early years education is coming into…

  8. •´.¸¸.•¨¯`♥.Trish.♥´¯¨•.¸¸.´• says:

    I am not sending my boys to school till 5.5yrs , they will learn more through play based learning at preschool and at home them pushing them into kindergarten at 4.5.
    Our preschool is big on play and outdoors time.
    I live the song let them be little … they are only that way for while.

  9. Teacher Barb says:

    fantastic stuff, very thought provoking…. such a relief that there are like-minded parents out there. it is so wonderful to watch my daughter learn every day in a natural way, at 3.5 she has figured out how to write her name with absolutely no pushing from me. it is simply from reading lots of books, she loves puzzles, a lot of them have letters and numbers. There has been no drilling of all this, or flash cards etc. kids don't need all this structured learning, they absorb it, they love learning at their own pace. Keep pushing them and it becomes a chore, unpleasant and they will start resisting it all. let them go at their own pace and they will fly! nothing makes me happier than picking up my daughter from kindy and hearing about all the wonderful interactions she is having with other kids and the fantastic staff. i know that this is the best learning experience she could possibly get, playing with kids her age, exploring, being curious, using her imagination and that is also what makes her happy.

  10. Narelle Nettelbeck says:

    One of my day care mums just told me she has her just-turned-2 year old in a READING program. Poor little boy…….

  11. Hi Christie,

    I'm not sure if I'm one of the fewer moms (who live in Asia) who AGREE with what you've shared.

    I totally believe that children learn through play. Though it doesn't mean that we need to ban 'worksheets' / flashcards (personally I myself am not too into worksheets / flashcards though 🙂

    Here in Singapore, children are taught to pick up so many things EARLY. And as much as I'm not into this approach, it's how the education system here is done.

    It's very competitive and children are sent to so many enrichments so early, because the majority of parents hope their kids are not 'left behind' as compared to their peers.

    Kids entering Primary 1 are expected to be able to do LOTS of things (they have exams, they are expected to be able to write in sentences – eg. in past tense!), so many parents really 'prepare' their kids before they go into Primary 1.

    I don't know how things will be like when my kids enter Primary 1 (that's in 2 years time for Anya, my 5yo daughter).

    But for now, I go out a lot with my 2 kids, involve them in fun play like arts and crafts, and visits to the beach, etc … and I share all this on my blog with a hope to give a different parenting perspective too to parents who live in Asia.

    Anyway, we plan to 'lower our expectation' when our kids enter Primary 1 🙂 eg. They don't have to be the BEST in class, just as long as they try their best according to their own capability. This way, (I hope) there's less pressure to the kids, and to us.

    Kids need to play (and learn at the same time anyway), NOT bogged down with too many activities that actually take them away from actually having fun and bonding with their parents.

  12. We had my daughter's kindy orientation last week at a small private school, and I, like SquiggleMum was so pleased to hear the play based message coming through loud and strong from the kindy teacher and the principal.

    Someone asked why the kindy kids don't have a uniform, again the message was loud and clear, it impairs the children's ability to play.

    While I have a bright child who would do well if pushed academically at this point, she is only 4 and there are plenty of years of formal schooling without impacting on her early childhood experiences.

  13. thank you for this discussion

    we are planning to send our son to nursery next year but the centre will not be able to place him in the 3-4 year old class despite turning 4 next year. (he is born in 2006). they will instead place him in the 2.5 -3 year old class for 5 months.

    my son is a dec baby and it seems that some pre-schools in jakarta has a cut-off time. (cut-off time is from jan to oct). msia and spore on the contrary, follows the calendar year.

    i'm not quite sure why is there such a policy in jakarta.although the teachers mentioned that it has something to do with the child's development.

    is it similar in australia? greatly appreciate your comments or advice.

  14. Thank you for sounding the message for play-based learning environments out to parents so clearly and articulately.

    As an Early Childhood Teacher working in a progressive preschool where we value play and the emotional / social development of our beautiful young children, it is frustating to be called on repeatedly to justify why we do what we do because the centre down the road or up the street is proudly proclaiming the benefits of their "school readiness" programs, which still sends the message that "yes, play is all well and good, but its time to get down to the nitty gritty."

    We need to keep getting the message out there that learning is a developmental process (no point sitting all the kids down to learn the letter "A" then) and that children need to be actively and playfully involved in something that interests and motivates them if they are to learn.

    So again, thanks for flying the flag!

  15. Such great points! I'm a family child care provider in the US and I've just started taking a class that is talking about a lot of these issues. As child care providers (and my group ranges in age from 3 months to 6 years), how do we encourage learning and exploration that is age-appropriate, teach them the social skills they need (like taking turns and respect), and make sure they get to be kids? I also see that just with my little group, some kids are thrilled to tears by worksheets (I have a 2-year-old who would do worksheets all day long), and others would rather color wildly and then glue things together. I want to respect all their personalities and needs and learning styles and ages and also prepare them. It's a lot to balance!

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