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?