One local preschool director says if a nursery school doesn't have a serious academic curriculum, it should prepare to go out of business. Direct instruction--flash cards, workbooks, listen-and-learn approaches--is what Washington parents increasingly want. But is it best for kids?
Pediatricians seem alarmed at the push toward academic work in preschool. In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a report emphasizing the importance of free play to emotional and cognitive development. "Despite the numerous benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children," the report says. "This change may have implications on children's ability to store new information, because children's cognitive capacity is enhanced by a clear-cut and significant change in activity."
A November 2011 article in Scientific American says that the push toward direct instruction in preschool may have unintended effects. Decades of research prove that learning through experience, or play, is how kids learn best. Last year, Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues showed two groups of children a toy that played music. One group was shown how to use it by an instructor; with the other group, the instructor pretended she didn't know how it worked. The children shown what to do simply imitated the instructor. But they didn't figure out, as the second group did, that there was a more efficient way to get the music to play. The study suggests that children learn better by experimenting than through direct instruction.
Laura Schulz, who studies early-childhood cognition at MIT, reports similar findings. Two groups of children were shown a toy with multiple functions. An instructor showed one group of children that it squeaked, while the others were left to play with the toy. Kids in the second group were more likely to discover that the toy could do multiple things, including squeaking, while many in the first group learned only that the toy could squeak.
Both studies suggest that when kids are left to play, their innate curiosity leads to greater discovery. If they're shown how to do something, the learning process is hampered. Jake Greenspan--son of legendary child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan and cofounder of Bethesda's Floortime Center, where families go for help with developmental, learning, and behavioral challenges--says the push toward academic-based preschool is worrisome: "They get used to being fed information and memorizing it, but they're not given the opportunity to think."
Learning to read and do multiplication is an important but small part of intelligence, says Tim Bleecker, who founded the Floortime Center with Greenspan. You can get a child to memorize and spit back the names of countries or Presidents, and it might impress your friends. But the preschool years should be focused on emotional and social development, he says. If you never learn how to sit down and become emotionally engaged in what you're doing, you might have trouble writing a creative essay or solving math problems later on.
Many parents today think in terms of schedules. We came of age in a hyper-structured environment--scheduling yoga and happy hours in between a 9-to-5 job and earning an MBA--and it's how we organize our children's world, too: breakfast, morning activity, lunch, nap, afternoon activity, dinner, bedtime. In the first year, many parents obsess about getting a baby on a nap schedule, a feeding schedule, an activity schedule. Much of this is good. Kids thrive when they know what comes next and can relax into the pattern of the day. But experts say something can be lost when the schedule gets too rigid.
"Parents think kids need this group or this activity, they need this preschool," says Greenspan. "They really need their parents. They learn so much more from their parents than they ever will from a music or gym class."
Dan Levy, a pediatrician in Owings Mills and spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says parents often ask him what they can do to enhance their child's development.
"I tell them, 'You can't rush Mother Nature,' " Levy says. He constantly reminds parents that the "humdrum everyday" is exciting for a little child: "It's just as stimulating to take a child to the mall as it is a music class. There's no evidence that any of these classes have a positive impact on the average developing child."
Greenspan recommends that parents keep at least 50 percent of a child's day unscheduled and encourages them to give a child three 20-minute sessions of free play. Rather than trying to teach your child something, consider yourself a facilitator. If your child is playing with blocks, don't encourage her to make a castle. "Often the child is happy building a small wall--they're not ready for the castle yet," he says. "Play doesn't have to be productive." It's about exploration.
Sometimes less is more in parenting. Read a magazine while you're in the playroom, says Dr. Levy. A parent's presence can make children feel secure enough to let their imagination soar. "I tell parents, 'Excellence doesn't mean you have to be involved every step of the way and every second of the day," he says. "It means letting go and letting children make their own mistakes.' "
While you're flipping through People, your child might make an important discovery with his blocks.
Looking back to finger-painting with Harper, I realize now that it didn't matter that he didn't draw a car--it only mattered that he had a chance to figure the paint out for himself.
Former Washingtonian senior writer Brooke Lea Foster can be reached at email@example.com.
This article appears in the May 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.