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November 22, 2004
Discussions about academics in early childhood programs often oversimplify the debate as a choice between academics or play in preschool and kindergarten.
In truth, all high-quality early childhood programs are academic, but in a professional and appropriate way. Research shows that young children learn best through manipulation of materials and hands-on experiences, planned by knowledgeable teachers. To parents, this learning may look like play, but it is play with purpose.
A good teacher creates a learning environment. She organizes materials so that children use them to figure things out, practice skills, and learn new concepts. Children get time to explore those materials, so that through repetition and success they develop the confidence to try more complex activities. Most important, the teacher is always ready to teach.
Much of the misunderstanding in this debate between play and academics stems from the definition of 'teaching' for young children. Many people see a teacher only as an instructor, imparting concepts and skills to patiently listening young children.
Good preschools and kindergartens know that three-, four- and five-year-olds are wigglers and doers. To help children stay with tasks and learn important concepts and skills, teachers work with, instead of against, their individual developmental styles. A good teacher watches as a child explores materials. He asks open-ended questions that stimulate the child's thinking: "What do you think would happen if you tried...?" She helps develop vocabulary by describing what the child is doing: "I see you used lots of colors - red, green, blue and brown."
To nurture reading and writing skills, teachers read many stories each day with children. Through these stories, children learn many of the conventions of written language, use picture clues, and play with the sounds of language. Teachers help children learn to recognize their own names and encourage them to write their names and other words. Teachers embed literacy activities in meaningful experiences: writing letters to friends, reading the classroom helper chart, and labeling the classroom.
Good preschools and kindergartens also implant math and science in children's activities. Counting and one-to-one correspondence are learned in daily routines of attendance and setting the table for snacks. Geometry is explored in block building. Vocabulary and concepts of measurement are taught at the sand and water table. Scientific observation is developed through projects about weather, seasonal changes, and plant and animal life.
In high-quality preschools and kindergartens, academic learning is playful and exploratory. Children contribute their own ideas, use their own problem-solving strategies, and pursue their own interests. Teachers skillfully weave in academic goals and objectives as they build on what children can do, and challenge them to try new things. Children are not left to their own devices, nor is their development left to chance.
Quality teachers know that high standards are important, but they also know the nature of learning at this age, and how academics are most effectively and appropriately incorporated into preschool and kindergarten. Using play to build success does not mean the curriculum is not academic. It means it is what's best for three-, four- and five-year-old children.
Excerpted from "Rigorous Academics in Preschool and Kindergarten?" by Gaye Gronlund - an article in the NAEYC journal, Young Children.