In the Preschool Years, Success is Child’s Play
The year was 2009; I was living in the City by the Bay. Having just moved, I was surrounded by baby stuff and unpacked boxes. My first kid was about to turn 3, and my second was still swinging on my ribs and kicking my bladder from the inside.
Next up on my “to-do” list was finding a preschool for my oldest, so I started asking other local parents of toddlers what preschools they were considering for their little ragamuffins. The general response was that I was late to the party. Years too late.
Apparently, I had missed the part of my prenatal classes when they told us we should add our progeny to preschool waitlists immediately, preferably while still in-utero. And, not just any waitlists, the RIGHT waitlists, for the RIGHT preschools, that would feed into the RIGHT elementary school, that would cement a spot for our future genius at Harvard.
They were serious. So, of course, I did what every good parent would do in that situation: I panicked. I spiraled into an abyss of despair, thinking I had already ruined my kid’s entire life!
As I emerged from that foggy hole of self-doubt and shame, I started to remember three things.
- I happen to be a pediatric occupational therapist, specializing in infant and child development.
- I’m pretty sure that preschool does not have the sole power to make or break a kid’s whole life.
- We can’t afford Harvard.
Backing away from the ledge, I started to look at preschools through my lens as an occupational therapist. What I saw was that academic rigor was all the rage. Toddlers were seen as little sponges, to be sat down and drowned in as much information as humanly possible, as early as possible.
Parents, with the best of intentions, wanted more learning, more “extras” at younger ages to ensure their children wouldn’t be left behind (hello parenting anxiety). We’re talking language classes, kindergarten readiness skills, math, handwriting, science, cursive, worksheets, even homework. It was all on the table, albeit tiny little sticky tables.
Preschool: A Lay of the Land
Before we go further, it will help to define some vocab.
Daycare is a broad term that covers all child care outside the home from 0 through 5 years of age. Preschool is generally intended for 3 to 5 year olds and provides early childhood education before kindergarten. Pre-k typically denotes the final year of preschool before kindergarten and is tailored to 4 to 5 year olds. In many preschools, the classrooms and expectations of the older preschoolers start to look more and more like elementary school classrooms.
There are a slew of different philosophies that schools use to guide their programs which seems really confusing, but they basically fall into two categories: Play-based & Academic. These lie on a continuum from less structured (child-directed) to more structured (adult-directed).
The occupational therapist in me did not love the idea of the more structured, academic-style preschools. Young children being asked to sit still and learn for long periods of time just seemed like a bad idea. Most 3-year-olds have a hard time sitting still long enough for a good pee, much less for a 15 minute lecture on anything.
All of my knowledge and learning about human development screamed that children learn best through active free-play. Since the body and brain are interconnected, children need both physical movement and hands-on experiences in order to learn. This means they work harder to overcome obstacles, are more engaged, problem solve more creatively, and learn more innately when an activity is desired and fun! Let’s be honest, adults learn best this way too. And yet, in schools all over the country, we keep expecting our kids to learn by sitting still and listening.
I knew all of this logically, but despite my years of experience working in child development, the trap of thinking that doing less meant I was not doing enough as a parent had a pull like a siren song. (To be honest, parenting anxiety still plagues me.)
In the 1990s – early 2000s, it was generally held that children who attended preschool were better prepared for kindergarten – and would perform better throughout kindergarten – than the kids who didn’t. Additional studies had hypothesized that preschool might also improve long-term outcomes for children.2
Researchers at Vanderbilt University wanted to do a more comprehensive study that looked at both short-term and long-term outcomes of attending preschool. Turns out, there was the makings for a perfectly designed study right there in their own state…
The state of Tennessee has had a voluntary public Pre-K program (TN-VPK) since the late 90’s. Early indicators pointed to its success, as it’d scored very well using established benchmarks of quality at that time. In 2005, the program expanded rapidly and was rolled out across the state, thanks to an influx of funding.
But the program was over-enrolled, meaning there were more children than spaces available in many neighborhoods. This led to assignment by lottery, where children from similar neighborhoods with similar family needs were randomly chosen to attend the TN-VPK, or not. Researchers saw an opportunity to use these preschools for a research study design called a randomized controlled trial (RTC): the gold standard of research!
The children who attended TN-VPK in the 2009-10 school year were the test group, the children who didn’t attend were the control group. In the years since, both groups have been followed (in a non-creepy way) and tested repeatedly from Pre-K through their 8th grade year to see the short-term and long-term effects of the TN-VPK program (they’ll ultimately be followed through high school).
So, the design of this study was quite good. The problem is, the outcomes (so far) have been mind-blowing!
And by that, we mean bad. Really bad.
Here are the results of the study so far, in a nutshell:
The short-term results were positive: the group who attended the TN-VPK scored better on academic measures by the beginning of kindergarten than the group who didn’t get in. High fives all around!
Sadly, this marks the end of the success for this group. By the end of the kindergarten year, the Pre-K students’ advantage had almost completely disappeared. This wasn’t really a surprise, as previous studies had shown that early successes had similarly diminished by the end of K.
But wait, there’s more.
A disturbing pattern began to emerge over the next few years. When the kids were tested after 3rd grade, and again after 6th grade, the lottery “winners” (aka: academic Pre-K attenders), progressively scored worse than the lottery “losers” in almost all academic and behavioral areas tested.
To be clear, the group that attended the highly structured, academic Pre-K tested lower in science, lower in reading, and lower in math by the end of 3rd grade with the gap growing wider by the end of 6th grade.
They also had more behavioral and discipline problems, which also progressively got worse over the years.
And, the most surprising finding in this slew of surprising findings was that they ended up with a greater need for special education services. The irony of this was that one of the goals of this program was specifically to reduce referrals to special ed.
What went wrong?
The study is still ongoing and there is a lot to unpack for future review, but it is very possible that the academic nature of this preschool program is what went so wrong.
The TN-VPK was a full-day program that (by design) required a minimum of 5 ½ hours of instructional time a day, 5 days a week. Yep, you read that right, the 4-year-olds in this program were expected to follow adult direction and “learn” for a minimum of five and a half hours a day. So, with their probable 2 hour nap time, snacks and lunch, this left little time for free-play. According to my definition, I would consider this program to be a highly structured academic preschool.
In contrast, most (63%) of the control group (those kids who lost the lottery to attend), just stayed home with their families until kindergarten and attended no preschool at all. The home environment is usually less structured and allows for lots of free-play time. Some of the control group attended private childcare centers or Head Start programs which could fall anywhere on the continuum from academic to play-based, but few if any, are likely to have been as structured and academic as the TN-VPK.
So why have these children, who mostly just hung out at home all day, been achieving better academically and doing better behaviorally over the years than the kids in the highly structured academic program?
The answer could be in how we are asking children to learn when we put academics in preschool.
Here are some things we know about children and learning. Children:
- Don’t have very long attention spans (Most 4-year-olds can attend for ~ 2 – 3 minutes on a task chosen for them by an adult. For self-directed play, it increases to ~ 8 – 12 minutes).
- Learn best through open-ended, non-structured play.
- Need to connect their brains and bodies through movement and hands-on activities for optimal brain development.
- Learn problem-solving and flexibility through failing at something they want to do and then trying again.
- Learn social skills through feedback by peers.
- Are learning about who they are and how the world works through their interactions and the responses of others.
- Are coming off a period of brain synapse explosion and moving into a period of brain synapse pruning, meaning that children’s physical experiences in the world dictate which brain connections they get to keep – and which are cut.
Therefore, placing children into a full-day, adult-directed environment that expects them to sit still for long periods of time while attending, memorizing, reciting, and performing is in direct contrast to the many things we know about children and learning. This alone could explain why the children who mostly stayed home and played eventually did better academically and behaviorally than their peers who were in the academic preschool.
In addition, we propose that stress and anxiety play a large part here as well. We parents are not the only ones feeling the pressure!
How does it feel for a small child, who typically has a 2 minute attention span, to be required to sit still and listen to an adult talk for 15 minutes? Or, to be forced to do an adult-directed academic task for 10 minutes straight? Now remember that they must be still and perform for longer than they’re truly capable of while under threat of punishment or causing teacher disappointment. Now, continue this hour after hour, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year.
I am getting tense just thinking about it.
The most self-regulated of children may succeed at this, but it will probably come at a cost. The less self-regulated children will fail — repeatedly. Failure, in this instance, is no longer a tool for developing flexibility, problem-solving, and learning. Instead, failure becomes a personality flaw, a statement of inadequacy, and a reason to doubt one’s own self-worth.
Young children’s brains and bodies are compelling them to move, touch, learn, explore, and to find new things to do! But, in structured preschools children are called-out, frowned at, and disciplined for wiggling, touching, not listening, not paying attention, and not doing things “the right way” for hours on end every day. They are surrounded by toys and other kids, but not allowed to touch them or interact with them in a way that makes sense to them for much of the day. This can be highly stressful to a young child.
Stress and anxiety can move the brain into danger-mode, triggering the flight, fight, or freeze response. At best, this leaves the brain unavailable for learning; at worst, two of these natural stress responses, fight and flight, will get you in some big trouble at preschool (and might even get you sent for testing…).
The good news is that things have been slowly changing in our country preschool-wise since 2009 when these children (and my first born) went to Pre-K. Parents and educators are learning more and more about the value of play and its impact on academics and behavior. (For more information about play research, check out Peter Gray and Alison Gopnik).
Many preschools talk about the importance of children’s play. Unfortunately, it is hard for parents to know exactly what “play” should look like in a preschool setting. For example, is working on a project considered playing? Plus, many parents and educators still want young children to learn school-y-things like reading and writing, to “prepare them for the rigor of kindergarten,” which can become a slippery slope. (Don’t even get me started on academics in kindergarten, that is another topic for another day.)
So, truly, the desire and push for academic rigor hasn’t gone away (especially in certain locales) — it has simply gotten a better marketing team.
Every preschool (even highly structured, academic ones) now talk a good game about play and play-based philosophies. They say the right buzz-words, such as “problem-solving,” “open-ended exploration,” “fun,” and “hands-on learning.” However, the way to figure out where a preschool truly falls on the continuum of play-based to academic is to look at its daily schedule. Parents should ask specific questions about how the kids spend their time, or just spend a few hours observing how the classroom is run.
Here is the secret to knowing the difference: play is child-directed, academics are adult-led. It is that simple. Add up all the time that a child is sitting (or standing) and listening to a teacher, following adult-given directions, or following the direction of a worksheet or computer program. This is all academic time. Then add up all the time where the child is able to pick what they do, how they do it, how long they do it, and who they do it with. This is play-based time.
Preschool should be a place for children to play freely in a safe and enriching environment so they can learn all of the things that will allow them to engage in academics later in their lives.
For the educators reading this, we can hit the brakes. We can push back against the push for more. We can incorporate more free-play time, more opportunities for active movement, less seated time, and fewer adult-directed activities in our classrooms. We can remind ourselves that when we do less, children do more, and ultimately learn more.
As parents, we can stop worrying about academics in early childhood education. We can stop trying to expose our children to everything at an early age. We can take six steps back and stop pushing so damn hard for our kids to do so much. We can stop the intense pressure around education (and parenting, in general) no matter where in the process your child is. We can turn away from that intoxicating siren song of parental pressure we put on each other, and ourselves. We can stop thinking in terms of what will look good on that future college application and start to think about what would make your child thrive contentedly right now.
If you are being told you are already two years late to apply for preschool, that you need to get into a specific preschool, or that your child must learn specific things in their preschool years, take comfort in knowing that you aren’t, you don’t, and they don’t. It’s all fine. There are many wonderful, stress-free childcare options available out there.
Does your family need childcare so the adults can go to work or get some alone time and sanity? Look for care that is low-stress, on the play-based side of the continuum, and allows kids to be kids.
You want to (or need to) keep your kid home with the family until kindergarten? Feel free to do just that without any guilt that you could be stunting your child’s learning potential.
No matter what, trust that kids learn immense amounts just through playing, and it appears they might learn more, behave better, and be much happier in the process.
- Almon, J. & Miller, E. (2011). The Crisis in Early Education. A Research-Based Case for More Play and Less Pressure. Published Online for Alliance for Childhood, November 2011. Publications and Reports — Alliance for Childhood
- Durkin, K., Farran, D.C., Lipsey, M.W., & Wiesen, S. E. (2022). Effects of a statewide pre-kindergarten program on children’s achievement and behavior through sixth grade. Developmental Psychology, 58(3), 470–484. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0001301
- Durkin, K., Farran, D.C., Lipsey, M.W. (2021) Scaling up Pre-k Statewide: Experimental Evaluation of the Policy. Vanderbilt University Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research in Educational Effectiveness