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Preschool Is Not A Panacea

Why should we expand subsidized preschool when children from Finland don’t start school until age 7 and yet exceed their American peers on international achievement tests?

As an early childhood educator, it’s a puzzle I’m frequently asked to explain. How can preschool be so essential for some children and unnecessary for others?

The answer is simple but we don’t talk about it for fear of causing offense or stating the obvious: a young child’s environment is her first and only teacher.

There is no prescribed curriculum of facts and skills that small children need to cover by a certain age if they are to succeed later in school.

Of course, we all grudgingly acknowledge in some abstract way that the young child’s environment — parental love and stability, material comfort, cognitive stimulation, and so on — is a key predictor of healthy development. But I’m going to go a step further and say for a 3- or 4-year-old child, it is the only educational curriculum that matters.

Unfortunately, the ersatz curriculum we’re so obsessed with these days — the dull, isolated, uni-dimensional skills and “outcomes” we compulsively track on check lists — is just a proxy (and a bad one) for the “real” early childhood curriculum: the playful environment that supports higher order cognitive and emotional development such as hands-on exploration, emotional connection, curiosity, inquiry, imagination, complex language structure and vocabulary, problem-solving, and self-regulation.

And that curriculum can be found anywhere. The authentic early childhood curriculum isn’t necessarily contained in the word we reflexively call “preschool.” It doesn’t need to be in a school at all. You can find it under a moss covered tree stump in the woods, or in a parent’s arms. On a noisy playground, or hiding behind a book in the library.

Once we accept that the environment is the curriculum, we can begin to understand how Finns still manage to outpace American students on virtually every academic achievement test. Because they have avoided the narrowly defined curriculum rabbit hole that we’ve hurled ourselves down headfirst in the last decade, they are winning and we are losing.

It’s high time we faced the fact that there is no prescribed curriculum of facts and skills that small children need to cover by a certain age if they are to succeed later in school. The fixed belief that such a pedagogy exists and is necessary for children to master by, say, the end of kindergarten fuels our current American “standards” fetish for narrowly defined measures of success, such as the ability to recognize a certain number of words or vowel digraphs by a particular date in the school calendar.

In this photo, a pre-K student plays grocery store. The author says this kind of pretend play requires more cognitive complexity than learning isolated skills. (Courtesy)
In this photo, a pre-K student plays grocery store. The author says this kind of pretend play requires more cognitive complexity than learning isolated skills. (Courtesy)

This is dangerous nonsense that obscures the real learning we see in the photo to the right of a child carefully creating a pretend grocery store: number sense, spatial reasoning, motor control, letter-sound and print awareness, as well as the ability to categorize, plan, cultivate imagination, involve peers, take turns, express generosity, and experience joy.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting isolated academic skills don’t need to be mastered. Only that there is no reason — no reason at all — that we should think they need to be accomplished within a certain time frame or within a certain educational format. All typically developing kids (and most atypically developing kids too) can eventually learn to read. By age 9 or 10, you can’t tell who started to read at 4 vs. 7 — but you can tell immediately who lacked a rich developmental education.

Our love affair with the early mastery of lower-level skills disconnected from real life context is terribly misguided. And that’s why I’m both thrilled and worried about expanding our publicly funded pre-K programs within the public school infrastructure. Expanded preschool access holds promise to level the playing field and close ability gaps for millions of disadvantaged kids, but only if we are more honest with ourselves about where we can find curriculum that supports the young child. Regrettably, it’s not always at school.


Related:

This program aired on March 4, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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