The Yin and the Yang of preschool

There has been a lot of talk in the past week in light of a recent Slate article by Alison Gopnik titled “Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School.” (Read the article here.)

Gopnik's main point is that preschool, aka “direct instruction” (I cringe when I hear this word because no preschool has an 8-hour day consisting of sitting at a table being taught lessons), makes children less creative, curious and limits children’s learning. She states that “spontaneous learning is more fundamental” and concludes by stating that a rich, stable and safe world with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, as well as lots of opportunities for exploration and play is what is important for children. “Not school for babies.”

In fact, a good preschool does all of the above. A quality preschool environment is the solution to the problem Gopnik presents, for a quality preschool has something extremely important: a truly balanced environment. By this I mean a balance of both direction and free exploration. It provides age-appropriate social, emotional, developmental, and yes, academic building blocks that children need to learn and thrive.

Let’s be realistic, some things do need to be taught directly, such as the ABC’s and 123’s. And indeed, preschool is considered a part of the K-12 education continuum, as it should be, and with an increasing focus on "school readiness," there has been a push for more measurable outcomes for children to be tested on as early as preschool. However, preschool is much more complex. A large majority of learning at this age is indeed exploratory.  Any good preschool knows this and allows for a large margin of time, usually even a majority of the time, for children to experience this. Further, a good preschool will challenge children in their exploratory time, pose questions and be a source for unanswered questions and vocabulary building.

That is why many preschools daily “curriculum” consists mostly of something called “play-based learning” where children learn through what most adults consider nothing more than “play,” but is really the most important part of a child’s day. 

Sarah Mead, a fellow education blogger, highlights this to a tee when she says that Alison Gopnik’s example of “not teaching” really is still teaching! A good teacher allows children to explore, yet facilitates questions and provides an environment where children can make predictions and come to conclusions on their own. 
Unfortunately, Gopnik is correct in her analysis of an “academic push” that is beginning as early as in the womb. By the time children are in preschool, many parents do not understand how fundamental learning at this age takes place, believing that the direct instruction with flash cards is how their child will become a successful student. And with the big emphasis being on “school readiness” and academic achievement, it’s no wonder that this is so.

I agree with Alison’s title because preschool shouldn’t be like school. Preschool should be better than what the stereotype of “school” is. It is our opportunity to provide quality learning environments to children at the most important time of development in their lives.

If “no school for babies” was every parent’s motto, children wouldn’t be exposed to the many spontaneous situations that a child gets from a play- based preschool environment. The reality is that the average parent does not have the time to be a preschool teacher.  Good preschools are dedicated to exposing children to diverse, exploratory and stimulating situations that many parents cannot provide.