A recent op-ed in the New York Times pulled on its smock and ventured into the world of preschool, looking at the “Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K.”
And none too soon. The high stakes, test-it-if-it-moves approach proliferating in schools these days has inadvertently push developmentally inappropriate skill development into the worlds of younger and younger students.
It is largely lamented that kindergarten is the new first grade and even preschools are feeling the heat to make kids sit for long periods for the sake of literacy development via dittos and large amounts of didactic instruction. Sit and Get vs. Get up and Do.
Earlier in the 20th century, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky made the related argument that children’s thinking develops through activity-based learning and social interactions with adults and peers. When teachers base their curriculums on Dr. Vygotsky’s ideas, there are significant benefits for children’s capacity to think, to plan and to sustain their attention on difficult tasks.
This seems intuitive enough. Humans evolved as animals of action, not inaction. Neuroscience research points to the importance of hands-on experiences for maximizing learning. As a result, effectively engaging our youngest learners in the classroom necessitates something of an “invitation” to explore their surroundings, an experience that to the observer looks like play.
While grown-ups recognize that pretending helps children find their way into the world, many adults think of play as separate from formal learning. The reality is quite different. As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time. It is so deeply formative for children that it must be at the core of our early childhood curriculum.
What does purposeful play look like? When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.
In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.
The teacher observes and comments. She shifts from group to group, talking with children about their work (“I see that you made a big red circle.”); helping children resolve a conflict (“You both want to be the mommy. What should we do?”); posing an open-ended question to stimulate exploration and problem-solving (“What do you notice when you use the magnifying glass that is different from when you use your eyes?”); and guiding children to manage themselves (“When you finish your snack, what activity would you like to choose?”).
As we read this piece, we are pleased to see our own preschool in these words. Our room is purposely designed to build students social and academic skills through playful exploration and thoughtful adult and peer interaction. Our students love to come to school and love to learn, flexing their curiosity, examining their world, and creating refrigerator-worthy masterpieces.
We have a responsibility as parents, educators, and society to protect, nurture, and support children’s innate instinct to learn. Fostering a life long love of learning pays huge dividends in students’ lives. We’ve seen it in our graduates as they continue to pursue knowledge, understanding, and their passions into high school, college, and beyond.
Want to know more about why we do what we do? You can visit our research page here.